McKenzie Wark on Sat, 8 May 1999 10:10:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Pyrotechnic Insanitarium

A review of Mark Dery's new book, The Pyrotechnic
Insanitarium, published by Grove Press
McKenzie Wark

Flipping through anthologies of what are dubiously 
labelled The 'Best American Essays' is a bit like drinking
luke warm milky tea with too much sugar. Except for
the time Susan Sontag edited a volume in this series, 
they have always struck me as examples of the American
essay in its most diluted form.

If you want a good strong mug of Joe to hyper-caffeinate 
the mind, you have to go to American essayists who 
don't serve up that special blend of mediocrity and 
manners brewed up by those tepid 'Best American' 

High on my list of literary heart starters is Mark Dery, 
well known to Nettime readers from his contributions 
to 21C, and for his previous book Escape Velocity. In that 
one, he picked over all varieties of cyberhype, 
technoboosting and info flim flam. In his new collection, 
The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, the whole of American 
culture goes into the Dery trash compactor.  

"All over the world, America stands for fun and death: 
Disneyland and the death penalty, Big Macs and murder. 
Surely its significant that, as of 1992, America's two top 
export items were military hardware and 'entertainment 
products', in that order", Dery writes. Not to mention 
Stealth bombers and sneaking blow jobs in the Oval 

Dery approaches America's "cultural landfill", from 
trashy movies to cult comic books, as a "a zero-tolerance 
critic of the growing encroachment of corporate influence 
on our everyday lives". There's always something a bit 
untimely about Dery. In conversation, he is the only man 
alive to have mastered hypertext in spoken form. And yet 
his language cojoins 18th century arcana with 21st century 
sound bites. He describes Insanitarium as "an obsolete 
hunk of dead-tree hardware that went to sleep and 
dreamed it was a Web page."

The "no fly zone" between high and low culture is where 
Dery performs his textual aerobatics. He covers a lot of 
territory, connecting the most unlikely points in an 
American landscape, the contours of which he hugs 

What emerges is an America were the Unabomber is the 
Log Lady's dysfunctional cousin, and a maker of 
"exploding Joseph Cornell boxes". Where Oklahoma city 
bomber Timmothy McVeigh's conspiracy theories "read 
like an X-Files script written by Thomas Pynchon." 
Where the obsessives who mine the Warren 
Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination are 
America's home grown deconstructionists, and where the 
26 volume report is "the Finnegan's Wake of paranoid 

Dery does what 'postmodern' essayists used to do best. He 
folds irony over on itself. He makes irony ironic. By 
folding the layers of prejudice and distinction and 
discrimination that constitute 'taste' against each other, 
he produces moments of distance and clarity, within 
which the writer can reveal the connections between his 
-- and our -- little corner of the cultural themepark and 
the rest of the world. 

Irony might not be much of a tool against the "oozing 
insinuation of the mass media, blob-like, into every 
corner of the public arena." But then, who you gonna 
call? "Irony is a leaky prophylactic against consumerism, 
conformity and other social diseases" but its all we've got 
to stop us being "sucked, Poltergeist-like, into the vast 
wasteland on the other side of the screen."

There's a strong moralist streak to Dery, but it isn't the 
"pathological puritanism" of the right wing pundits. The 
repression and denial of the dark and sticky side of life is 
for Dery part of the problem. "Always, the beast is closer 
than we know". A classic Dery technique is to start from 
whatever tepid-tea essayists find distasteful and sink his 
teeth into it. 

He's good on any kind of freak or boundary crosser, like 
the kind who appear on talk shows, and give talk shows 
their bad name among the literary jigglers and danglers. 
"Daytime talkshows are equal parts geek show, peep show 
and Gong Show, made morally palatable by a gooey icing 
of psycho-babble. The deeper questions are: What is the 
chattering class really saying when it reviles these 
programs as 'freak shows'? Who decides who's a freak? 
And why are freaks so threatening?"

This is the Achemedian point to which only irony can 
lever us -- the point where there is not just a 
consideration of what is good taste and what is bad taste, 
but a questioning of who gets to make the distinction. In 
the knee-jerking hatred of talkshows among the 
chattering classes, Dery finds a "paroxysm of class 
revulsion". Trailer trash, welfare moms, and above all 
black people are to be discriminated against in the most 
polite way possible, by discriminating against their 
cultural tastes. 

The trouble with taste is that the distinctions on which 
the 'cultured' middle classes built their respectable 
prejudice are coming unglued. Nobody seems to know 
what's high or low -- everything feels so slippy. It gets 
harder and hard to strain out the impurities. The result is 
a constant anxiety about separation. "The Brita filter is 
our fallout shelter, the existential personal flotation 
device of the nervous nineties." Everybody knows that 
the wealth of what's left of the middle class rests on a 
mountain of industrial waste, and that kitsch is as 
omnipresent as airborne contaminants, but nobody wants 
to admit it.

"If there's a message here, it's that we're going to have to 
make our peace with the repressed, whether its the body 
and all it implies (defecation, sex, disease, old age, and 
death) or the solid waste and toxic runoff of consumer 
culture and industrial production." Or in short, "it's high 
time we grew up, already."

Growing up, for Dery, is ending middle class denial, 
accepting the fact of the trash pile on which class privilege 
rests, studying the landfill for clues as to the process by 
which the turbulent, chaotic surfaces of consumer culture 
spew forth from the industrial world. Dery is one of those 
rare writers with a deep enough insight into the 
American soul, with an eloquence in all its stuttering 
dialects, to look America in its dark and gazeless eye, and 
not blink.

Mark Dery, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American 
Culture on the Brink, Grove Press

McKenzie Wark is senior lecturer in media studies at 
Macquarie University, and is the author, most recently,
of Celebrities, Culture & Cyberspace, published by Pluto
Press Australia


"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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