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Has the cultural critic become his own worst enemy? Has the eloquence he belabors to produce through his craft been diminished to cynicism in the fast-paced Age of the Internet?
In one word: yes.
Mark Dery’s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams is an aggregated collection of essays that were published variously (for the most part as blogs) throughout the past decade or so (1997-2011) online. This, I’m afraid, translates into a collection of printed essays that feels slightly out-of-date and more than slightly hubristic—due to the fact that hubris has become the quintessential trademark of the online writer/blogger, who is able to be snarky and even flat-out cruel because of the distance (virtual and literal) between the writer and his audience, or, in this case, between the critic and those he criticizes. So, while I agree with him that Lady Gaga is overly sensationalized and celebrated by the media, his critique of her in “Aladdin Sane Called” hedges on character assassination through the exposure of her brand (which is much her image as it is her music) as whitewashed “freakery” and “gimmick”: “At heart, she’s a life coach in megaplatforms, all moral uplift and daily affirmations”).
Perhaps this tonally aggressive, bordering-on-Mean-Girl writing style was intended by Dery, who writes in his introduction:
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.
Perhaps this is what Dery means by describing his formal stylistic “punch” as “drive-by”—much like a drive-by shooting (or, “drive-by fruiting,” if you’re Robin Williams in drag). It could also be the case that Dery’s style was intended to portray a “camp” poetics on the page, whereby critique occurs from a place of “darkness” rather than from a position of moral superiority. Even though his intent is clear and he acknowledges his own positionality in relation to these critiques (in the aforementioned Gaga essay he realizes he’s a “heteronormative male” in a realm of glittery disco balls), camp as poetics rather than performance fails to register. In this regard, Dery’s style is consistent, even, at times, imaginatively witty (for misanthropists out there, “Death to All Humans!” is delightful and informative).
But the problem with snark and other forms of aggressive sarcasm in cultural critique is that it often is a distraction, or, rather a deviation or, even an excuse, from arriving at the point of an argument. Oftentimes Dery fails to follow through with his astute observations in order to arrive at something unique or poignant. Instead of thinking critically through his thoughts he turns to sarcasm; for instance, his essay “Wimps, Wussies, and W.” about the discrepancy between the unchecked pervasiveness of homophobia in the media and policing of “racial felonies” and epithets (using Don Imus as his example) begins a paragraph with the sentence,
“The trouble with manhood, American-style, is that it is maintained at the expense of every man’s feminine side, the frantically repressed Inner Wussy.”
This sentence is, at first glance, quite benign. But the essay’s point is lost in the final clause. He is too intent on waving around his catchphrase “Inner Wussy” to think critically about how race factors into this dichotomization of masculine and feminine within the male body—which you think he would do, considering he’s positing racism against homophobia as the frame of his essay. Why can gay male culture “take masculinity to hyperbolic extremes”? Who can afford to do this? All men? Or, arguably, just white men? How about the racial and racist implications of both emasculinization and hyperbolic masculinity? Dery doesn’t think through his quite intriguing comments, which leaves the reader disappointed.
The turn to sarcasm also may in part be due to the fact that each of his essays lacks a single critical focus, or one that is rigorous enough to call his own. Essays about the cultural history of “Santa Claus,” or the cyborgization of humankind via the use of Facebook, are not revelatory. And his essay “Jocko Homo” on homoeroticism in sports is undeniably derivative of Marjorie Garber’s 2001 essay “Two Point Conversion.” Although perhaps there is no reference to Garber’s work or any of her work on gender or sexuality or cultural studies at all because Dery, revealingly, is an avid fan of Camille Paglia, who he refers to in no fewer than three different essays.
I completely acknowledge that my own valuation of the printed text over the electronic text influences my observations about Dery’s collection of essays. More often than not, the “blog” does not make for a sophisticated or particularly stimulating printed text. The printed text is quite pricey nowadays, literally and figuratively; new media has democratized writing to the extent that it is no longer a craft developed through the “10,000 Hour” rule of patient practice but a thing Anyone-With-Access-To-The-Interwebs can do. Dery’s collection is symptomatic of the critical difference between online writing (blogging) and writing-in-print: easy enough to “click” through, but not compelling enough to post a link to on your Facebook page.
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams
By Mark Dery
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816677733, 304 pp.