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inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #0 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 9 May 12 07:00
    
Inkwell is ecstatic to welcome Mark Dery for  two-week freewheeling 
discussion about his new essay collection, _I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: 
Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams_.  Mark is a remarkably 
erudite, well-respected cultural critic with a fringe sensibility and 
strong cyberculture roots. He's known to sharpen his tongue every morning 
as he sits down to write. His writings on media, technology, pop culture, 
and American society have appeared in Artforum, Cabinet, Elle, The New 
Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, and 
Wired, among others. He lectures frequently in the States and abroad. 
Derys books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the 
Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, which 
has been translated into eight languages. He edited the scholarly 
anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture and wrote the 
monograph Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of 
Signs. He's currently writing a biography of the artist Edward Gorey for 
Little, Brown.

I'm Jon Lebkowsky, and I'll be leading the discussion for Inkwell. My 
short bio is here: http://weblogsky.com/bio-jonlebkowsk/
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #1 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 9 May 12 07:04
    
Mark, I want to start with a very easy question... what's happening with 
American culture? It's starting to feel like the locks on all the cages at 
the zoo have been demolished.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #2 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Thu 10 May 12 06:54
    
And I'm thrilled to be here; thanks for having me, Jon. I'm still
trying to scrub my mindscreen clean of that mental image of me
sharpening my tongue, a turn of phrase that conjures visions of a
Komodo Dragon performing an unnatural act on a pencil sharpener. Or
that impossibly Freudian scene in _Jurassic Park_ where the T. Rex
gives those perkily Spielbergian kids a tongue lashing---literally,
probing the dark recesses of the cave they're cowering in, and fondling
them with its slithery, slimy appendage. It also reminds me, for
whatever odd reason, of Laurence Grobel's description, in his
_Conversations with Capote_ (which I just finished reading), of
Truman's distracting tongue, a creepily concupiscent thing that
mesmerizes Grobel in mid-interview: "I found myself staring at his
mouth with that lolling serpent's tongue. I felt as though I might be
sucked in when he leaned forward. I half-expected that tongue to lash
out froglike and whip around my neck." This is fine, Burroughsian
stuff---outtakes from _Naked Lunch_, or the bar scene in Thompson's
_Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas_. Of course, Grobel's portrayal of
Capote as a puffy, goggle-eyed little toad, snapping the buzz out of
mid-air as it bumbles by---battening, literally, on gossip---is a
metaphor for the Capote of _Answered Prayers_, Capote the acidulous
observer of New York high society, Capote the amusing little Hop-Frog
of a jester committing all his socialite friends' whispered confidences
to memory for future use in his fiction. James Michener, in his intro
to the Grobel book, even argues that Artists (he seems to mean the term
with a capital "A") are "outrageously against the grain, [espousing]
unpopular causes, [behaving] in ways that would be unacceptable to
others"; to Michener's way of thinking, Artists often "have waspish
tongues," which he sees as an essential part of their toolkit, a device
for delivering short, sharp shocks to society in its corrupt or
complacent underbelly. All of this, by the way, reminds me of a
conversation I was having with my dental hygienist just this week---my
mouth is a never-ending construction site, so I spend endless hours in
the chair---about the tongue as an organ with a mind of its own.
Apparently, there are as many types of tongue as their are styles of
mind. According to my hygienist, the tongue is one of our strongest
muscles; her patients' tongues are forever parrying and thrusting,
chasing the instruments here, shrinking away from them there. Listening
to her, I couldn't help wondering about the potential role of Tongue
Personality Assessment in depth psychology; will the DSM of the near
future include an entry on neurotic tongues, psychotic tongues,
sociopathic tongues? 
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #3 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 10 May 12 07:21
    <scribbled by jonl Thu 10 May 12 07:22>
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #4 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Thu 10 May 12 08:11
    
Where were we? Right, the physics of social turbulence in 21st-century
America. As I argue in _I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts_, chaos is the
new normal in an America where fear-addled white suburbanites on
"Neighborhood Watch" gun down black teens (armed, admittedly, with
Skittles and the dreaded hoodie) for the crime of leaving District 9;
where white-supremacist survivalists are stockpiling guns and MRE's for
the coming "zombie apocalypse"---societal collapse, followed by the
multi-ethnic "mongrel" horde's assault on civilization's last redoubt,
the gated compound; where viral mails and social media are vectors of
transmission for conspiracy theories---on the left as well as the
right---about 9/11 and vaccination and Obama and the federal
government; where every day's headlines, it seems, bring news of yet
another thrill-kill shooting spree in a nation where every wall-eyed
loon has the right to conceal and carry and the NRA won't rest until
even the unborn bear arms; where cubicle warriors pilot predator drones
to hunt down jihadis far from heartland America, then drive home
rattled by battle fatigue to a suburbia where their kids rack up body
counts in _Call of Duty_; where we're happy to sacrifice, as burnt
offerings to the War on Terror, our privacy (thank you, SCOTUS, for
strip searches anywhere, anytime, from Officer Friendly! Thank you,
TSA, for pornoscanners and women forced to drink their own breast milk
to prove it's not an IED!); where the Democratic Experiment is
profoundly imperiled, rotting from the head down (corporate
influence-peddling, Citizens United, kleptocratic corruption,
plutocratic contempt for the 99%) *and* from the bottom up (the
nativist do-nothingism and ideological lunacies of the Tea-Party
lumpen; the theocratic jihad of the religious right; a pervasive
historical and cultural and scientific illiteracy, coupled with an
anti-intellectualism bequeathed by what Harold Bloom calls the American
Religion and fostered by pugnacious faux populists like Rick Santorum,
Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Limbaugh, and the Aryan
newsdroids at Fox News); where the dizzying chasm between the hyperrich
and the growing ranks of the working poor (the People Formerly Known
as the Middle Class) has put philosophical matter and antimatter---the
utopian rhetoric of democracy and the implacable Darwinian logic of
neo-liberal capitalism---on a collision course. But I've emptied my
ammo clip; ask me another one while I reload.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #5 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 10 May 12 08:37
    
This is a response to your first post at <inkwell.vue.441.2>:

This reminds me of the tongue references in R. Meltzer's _Aesthetics
of Rock_, e.g. "Metaphorically, or merely metaphorically, as well as
concretely, the rock tongue presents simultaneous prerequisite and
corequisite twin infinities; the reliance upon such a short temporal
span itself as a focal point of order in the song points towards the
linking of the infinitesimal with the finite and infinite." Or "Often
an unknown tongue is *felt* as merely implicit in a song but excluded
explicitly, creating the tension of the meta-unknown tongue. In such a
case the tongue is no longer unknown but even expected, and its
exclusion is one of the high points of metaphysical overstated
understatement." I've often wondered if you have common cultural DNA
with Meltzer.

Speaking of rock, is the title of your book a reference to that great
song by X:

"The facts we hate: The facts we'll never meet.
walking down the road. Everybody yelling
'hurry up!" 'hurry up!'  But I'm waiting
for you, I must go slow.  

I must not think bad thoughts.  

When is this world coming to?  Both sides are
right but both sides murder.  I
give up; why can't they?  

I must not think bad thoughts.... (etc.)"

Could you reconstruct the book's title a bit? Relating "bad thoughts"
to "American dread" and "American dreams"?
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #6 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 10 May 12 08:41
    
TO your post at <inkwell.vue.441.4>... are there clues in your essays
suggesting how we got to this dizzying, dysfuntional, polarized,
"profoundly imperiled, rotting from the head down" state? 
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #7 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Thu 10 May 12 10:33
    
>>I've often wondered if you have common cultural DNA
with Meltzer.<<

Dear Imaginary Jeebus, I hope not! What little I've read of him
impresses me as hack rockcrit straining manfully, on one hand, toward
Lester Bangsian gonzo and on the other toward some kind of Deep
Thought, equal parts Jack Black and Jack Handy. It's sloppiness
masquerading as Kerouacian first-thought, best-thought beatnik yawp,
and I say to hell with it. Writing that *sounds* spontaneous as speech,
writing that captures the syntax and syncopation of orality,
counterfeiting it yet stylizing it in a subtly artful way, is
fiendishly difficult to pull off. Writing that reads like a
transcription of *actual* speech, like too much of Meltzer's stuff,
swerving occasionally into bathetic belle-lettrism like the quotes
above, is unreadable, at least to me. 

But then, I'm the sort of reader who reads Kerouac with much agony of
mind, groaning and heaving great body sighs and slashing whole
paragraphs with a red pencil (literally); the sort of reader who
devoutly believes there's nothing wrong with _On the Road_ that
couldn't be fixed by an editor with a pair of pruning shears, an
industrial-strength shredder, and murder in his eye.

>>Could you reconstruct the book's title a bit? Relating "bad
thoughts"
to "American dread" and "American dreams"?

Well, my introduction says it all. Quote:

[When] I was attending college in L.A. [in the late '70s-early '80s],
...punk rock was the soundtrack of youth culture, a squall of suburban
angst and political disaffection. “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” by
the band X nailed the apolitical vacuity of the decade, when greed was
good and the grandfatherly Velociraptor in the Oval Office mused, on
Good Morning America, that “the people who are sleeping on the grates”
must surely be homeless “by choice” in this Best of All Possible
Worlds.  Up-to-the-minute and in-your-face, punk didn’t hesitate to
deconstruct the world around it--with a chainsaw.

It occurred to me, with X buzzing in my mind’s ear and my professor’s
words  hanging in the air, that it’s a 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. 

The ethos of Thinking Bad Thoughts isn’t synonymous with the willful
perversity of Christopher Hitchens’s contrarianism, or with H.L.
Mencken’s lifelong devotion to spit-roasting the sacred cows of the
booboisie, or with the nothing-is-true, everything-is-permitted
libertinism of William S. Burroughs, or with the liberatory cynicism of
punk rockers like X, or with Orwell’s ability to confront hard truths
without flinching. Yet it contains a tincture of each. 
Thinking Bad Thoughts is above all else a refusal to recognize
intellectual no-fly zones. In America, that translates as the rejection
of bred-in-the-bone Puritanism; bourgeois anxieties about taste; the
self-censorship routinely practiced by academics, fearful of offending
tenure committees and blinkered by elite assumptions about what
constitutes “serious” subject matter and “scholarly” style; the craven
capitulation of Hollywood and the news media, phobic of truly
controversial content that might scare off advertisers or upset Middle
America’s mental digestion. (By “truly controversial content,” I mean
incendiary ideas that challenge the founding assumptions of official
fictions or popular pieties. Take your pick, for example, of Noam
Chomsky’s Top 10 List of Things You Can’t Say on Nightline: “The
biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones
that are run out of Washington; if the Nuremberg laws were applied,
then every postwar American president would have been hanged; the Bible
is one of the most genocidal books in the total canon; education is a
system of imposed ignorance. . .”)  

The politics of Thinking Bad Thoughts stands foursquare against the
faux-populist demagogues, brownshirt pundits, evangelical no-nothings,
and Tea Party lumpen of the anti-intellectual right and against the
Stalinist thought police of the left at its most inquisitional,
scouring every soul for counterrevolutionary tendencies--those
ineradicable pockets of racism, sexism, size-ism, age-ism, able-ism,
and look-ism lurking in even the most ideologically pure of heart. 

As for >>how we got to this dizzying, dysfuntional, polarized,
"profoundly imperiled, rotting from the head down" state<<, I'm hoping
we'll touch, in the conversation that follows, the historical trends
and cultural dynamics and American myths that come to ground in the
U.S.A. of our moment. My answer to your question above hints at some of
those elements: the hubris of American Exceptionalism; our elevation
of free-market fundamentalism to a state religion; our bred-in-the-bone
racism and the still-raw historical scars of genocidal frontier
violence and slavery and lynchings; our fetishization of the gun and
our preference for action over ideas; the cult of rugged individualism,
taken to anomic, Dirty Harry extremes; the Reaganite demonization of
government, which plays to both the Ayn-Rand right and the secessionist
states' rights fringe; our anti-intellectualism, born of the Puritan
tradition and warped beyond all recognition by the Cold War crusade
against eggheads; the demonic apparition of the mob, which in our
history has always shadowed We the People; and that root of a million
little evils, our interminable god-bothering---that pestilential
religiosity that is the sworn foe of human progress, and which has made
us the laughingstock of the civilized world. When we think back to the
Enlightenment minds who dreamed our utopian dream, then flash forward
to our current status as the Land of the Yahoos, a dizzy drop down the
Western ladder when it comes to incarcerating and exterminating our own
citizens, shredding civil liberties, denying healthcare to the
million, dismissing Darwin, denying climate change, fulminating
endlessly about Prayer in the Schools and The 10 Commandments in the
Courtroom while the world burns---why, the irony of the thing is just
pitiful.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #8 of 259: Administrivia (jonl) Thu 10 May 12 13:57
    
This discussion can be referenced by a short link:
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inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #9 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 10 May 12 14:39
    
The first essay in _I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts_ is about the zombie
as a cultural phenomenon. Recently, in line to see "The Cabin in the
Woods" at SXSW Interactive, I overheard a conversation wherein a rather
straight looking twentysomething mentioned that he'd just finished
writing "my zombie novel." Has the zombie jumped the shark? What do we
find so compelling about the "walking dead"?
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #10 of 259: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 10 May 12 15:55
    
Hi Mark

Welcome to the WELL.  I've been sampling the essays, not reading them
in order.

I was particularly taken with "Triumph of the Shill," your essay on
the branding of Hitler and the Nazis.  Given the current American
obsession with corporate and "personal" branding, you are tapping into
a rich vein by going for the most extreme version of the phenomenon.
The political debates have a meta-level around corporate power and
influence at the same time that there is an obsessive-compulsive
fixation on image.  The Citizen's United court case, the charges of
rigging of the markets, the attempts from the right wing to regulate
individuals' personal behavior all ring the fascist bell.  Or at the
very least, there is a whiff of Germany in the 1930's in the air.  As
for "personal branding" all you have to do is turn on your computer and
connect to the internet to get at a cottage industry of self
expression, self promotion, and self interest.

Could you share with us the genesis of your article?  What got you
thinking about the subject, what sources did you consult, and what
associations led you to use the Nazis as the subject of branding?  
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #11 of 259: From Roy Christopher (captward) Fri 11 May 12 09:52
    
Via e-mail:

After spending a brief but well-defined stint there, you've all but
abandoned Hip-hop as a space for comment. As KRS-One would say, Why is
that? Has it changed or have you changed?
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #12 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Fri 11 May 12 11:03
    
@JonL: With your blessing, I'm going to let this one drift in order to
break up the _My Dinner with Andre_ dynamic <g> in favor of a
many-to-many free-for-all. If we end up listening to the lonely sound
of tumbleweeds blowing down main street, I'll come back to your #9,
agreed?

@DWilson: Thanks. I've been here before, *way* back in the
day---1992-late 90something, if memory serves (and, given increasingly
frequent Senior Moments, it may not), when I was researching _Flame
Wars_ and _Escape Velocity_. 

Regarding Nazis, the secret history of branding, and what led me to
this arcane subject, I'd long been convinced that Hitler specifically,
and the Third Reich generally, were one of a few skeleton keys to the
modern mind, and possibly to The Postmodern Condition (to use a
trademarked phrase). David Bowie's flip---and therefore widely
misunderstood---jaw-dropper about Hitler being the "first superstar,"
in his infamous _Playboy_ interview with Cameron Crowe, made me sit up
and take notice, as a teen. Bowie's reframing of Der Fuhrer as a media
apparition, an ectoplasmic manifestation of the German id conjured up
by Speer's _son et lumiere_ spectacles at Nuremberg, Goebbels's
propaganda machine and carefully staged media events, Reifenstahl's
proto-Reality TV docudrama _Triumph of the Will_, and Hitler's own
intuitive sense of politics as a branch of stagecraft and aesthetics as
a form of politics (Walter Benjamin had some thoughts on the Nazis'
reduction of politics to fascist spectacle, with cataclysmic results)
made sense, and suggested provocative connections between the flickery,
gothic nightmare of Nazi-dom and the media landscape around me, as a
'70s teen. Retrospectively, Hitler and his stage managers and set
designers---architects of apocalypse and dramaturges of genocide, we
should never forget---emerged as curiously postmodern figures,
premonitory of the Lee Atwaters, Roger Aileses, and Frank Luntzes of
our time. (Of course, it bears pointing out, as I do in my _Bad
Thoughts_ essays on Hitler and the Third Reich, that Hitler was very
much a creature of the 19th-century, always harking back to some
mist-shrouded Teutonic past straight out of a Bayreuth opera. And the
Nazism, of course, was at its black heart profoundly reactionary. Yet
as J.G. Ballard points out in his review of _Mein Kampf_ (collected in
_A User's Guide to the 20th Century_), "the psychopath never ages,"
meaning: Hitler seems, even now, weirdly modern if not postmodern,
whereas contemporaries such as Neville Chamberlain, with his derby and
furled umbrella, are embalmed in black and white, ghostly figures
condemned to the limbo of the fading newsreel. Reading Joachim Fest's
canonical bio, _Hitler_, further confirmed my early suspicions that
Hitler was inextricably a creature of the early mass-media age, rich in
McLuhanesque messages for the attentive media critic. Among the book's
photos is the series shot by Hitler's private photographer, Heinrich
Hoffmann, of Hitler striking suitably histrionic attitudes, images he
would later review for possible use as templates for onstage posturing.
Looking at them, one can't help but think: The Actor Prepares. (I had
much the same thought reading Reagan's autohagiography, _My Life_.) The
movie _Max_ takes this idea---Adolf as a failed painter and imaginary
architect of megastructures who finds his true calling as Author of
Gotterdammerung---and runs with it, I think quite successfully. 

 
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #13 of 259: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 11 May 12 12:40
    
Yeah, Hitler was definitely a great master of branding, and certainly
one of the all-time great talents in what I guess you could call
commercial art.  Consider two things: 

First, you can almost immediately identify *any* Nazi artifact as
being a Nazi artifact, swastikas or no.  That indicates an incredible
unity of design.

Second, he gave uniforms, banners, the whole lot an overall sense of
menace without appearing ridiculous.  That's really hard to do -
compare to Mussolini or really any other fascist movement of that day. 
They either look drab or ludicrous.

They shoulda let the guy into art school.  Would have saved everyone a
lot of trouble.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #14 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Fri 11 May 12 13:32
    
@Roy Christopher: Great to see you here, Roy. And a great question, as
well. 

Having come of age in the '70s, in San Diego---a Mojave of the Mind
where FM radio ruled the white airwaves and playlists were as
scrupulously segregated as water fountains in Botha's South Africa---I
stumbled on hip-hop by the merest chance, and from the most oblique
angle of cultural attack imaginable. An aspiring performance poet,
trying to engineer a meme-splice of Patti Smith and Jim Carroll and
John Giorno and Laurie Anderson and Sylvia Plath that I called
"talkmusic," I was living in the largely Latino Mission District, in
San Francisco, in '82-'83. Walking past a Paul's Boutique-type record
shop-cum-bodega, I was riveted by "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash
blaring out of sidewalk speakers. I stood, nailed to the sidewalk, and
listened to the entire 12"; when it ended, I went straight into the
shop and bought it. 

Bear in mind that the interior of my *pop music* consciousness---as
opposed to my avant-garde sensibility---had been upholstered in shades
of Jethro Tull, Yes, Uriah Heep, ELP, Wishbone Ash, and other pillars
of beer-bong psychedelia. The Jim-Crow laws of Southern California
rock-radio programming had instilled in me a reflexive revulsion to
anything that "sounded black" (or even brown): Ohio Players, LaBelle,
Sly Stone, et. al. Even War's "Low Rider," which I now find
excruciatingly funky (who doesn't?), was pure Syrup of Ipecac to my
white-boy, rockist soul. (In my defense, I was the product of San
Diego's racially cleansed suburbs, where Chicanos were reviled as
"beaners" and "wetbacks," Filipinos kept their racial Otherness to
themselves, and blacks were confined to National City and the ghetto of
Logan Heights---now reborn as the determinedly Latino/a Barrio Logan.)


Anyway, I loved "The Message's" icy political fury, cool as dry ice;
Shao Lin-level wordplay; and hooky mix of butt-funky, chicken-picked
guitar and eerie, weightless piano chords. In an instant, I saw a
subterranean corridor running from Flash and his South Bronx homeboys
to the punk poets and spoken-word artists I liked. Black music,
whatever that is---to me, it was the schlocky, overproduced,
Barry-White-cognac ad make-out music wafting from that black guy's car
at a stop light---had always impressed me as apolitical, consumerist
Fluffernutter, shudderingly uncool and cluelessly complicit in
mainstream culture at its most brain-dead. But here was an utterly
oxymoronic thing---radically political avant-garde pop music, made by
survivors of a racist econopocalypse in the post-apocalyptic landscape
of that alien planet, New York. 

Later, I moved to New York, in August of '83, where the air was thick
with hip-hop culture. When I started writing freelance journalism, I
wrote, inescapably, about hip-hop among other things. Seeing _Do the
Right Thing_ (1989), which is set in Bed-Sty, *in* Bed-Sty on the day
it opened, tore the roof off my head. The theater was packed with a 99%
black crowd, and when Rosie Perez started jacking it to Public Enemy's
"Fight the Power," the place erupted. The crowd was levitating, people
dancing in the aisles, screaming comebacks at the screen throughout
the whole movie. I'd never seen anything like it. I was strapped into a
racial centrifuge, my eyes taped into their sockets so they wouldn't
fly out. I *still* believe those early PE albums will puree your brain
if you play them At Maximum Volume.

Trying to make sense of this stuff, I read it through the 20th-century
avant-gardism I was steeped in---Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John
Cage, Duchamp, Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Rauschenberg, Kurt
Schwitters, Pound, Joyce, Burroughs's cut-up novels, Eisensteinian
montage. I understood its roots in the racist history of the U.S., and
specifically in the economic disenfranchisement and redlining of people
of color in the South Bronx. But I also saw it as a black take on
modernist avant-gardism, easily the equal of all the white, largely
European avant-gardists I knew from art-history books. 

Still later, I came to understand hip-hop as black cyberpunk, a form
of techno-bricolage, reading it through Gibson's canonical formulation
("the street finds its own uses for things")---an appropriation of
Levi-Strauss's bricoleur, updated for the age of wheels of steel amid
the bombed-out urban ruins brought to you by Robert Moses and decades
of "benign neglect." (Or maybe cyberpunk could be spun backwards, in
critical terms, as white-geek hip-hop?) I delve deep into these idceas
in my essay on Afro-futurism, in _Flame wars_, and in the section on
Gibson's _Neuromancer_ in _Escape Velocity_.

As for why I turned my back on hip-hop, I'll simply point to Tricia
Rose's blindingly brilliant _Hip-Hop Wars_, a _cri de coeur_ that is
also a call to battle. As rose argues with devastating clarity and
heart and an unequalled mastery of the facts on the ground, corporate
consolidation and the commodification of black social pathologies and
misery for a largely white audience---Rose cites rock-solid stats on
that point---have eviscerated what was once a thrillingly radical,
fervently political music. Then, too, the lockdown on copyright killed
the sort of mind-shredding formal innovation pioneered by Hank
Shocklee's Bomb Squad dead in its tracks. 

 
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #15 of 259: David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 11 May 12 13:39
    
I like how you approach the subject by calling it a "skeleton key into
the modern mind."  And I'm glad you brought up Walter Benjamin who
looked at the modern condition as if it were film montage.  He is my
go-to guy, the best sixth man in social science.  Then you mention
manifestations of the German id--the breathtaking parades, light shows,
films and the rest of the cultural products that they used to define
themselves and draw in the the rest of the public.

So you got me thinking about how this tracks with contemporary
American politics and pop culture.  Benjamin's buddy Siegfried
Kracauer's take on the Nazis was that the films of the era were, in
retrospect, a tip off to the rise of the Nazis.  They were populated
with madmen and evil criminal genuises who went about trying to take
over the world.  

In your first essay, you discuss zombies and vampires in current
films, TV, books etc.  They have proliferated and are everywhere. 
There has to be some kind of tip off in there about our current
obsessions to what is in store for us sometime in the future.  How do
you see the culture's power players defining themselves and then
drawing in the public.  You seem to be able to connect the dots.

...slipped...
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #16 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Sat 12 May 12 08:59
    
(I can't believe the WELL *still* doesn't have an EDIT button as, say,
Boing Boing does, permitting users to amend their posts after the
fact. "Bed-Sty," in my #14, should have been "Bed-Stuy," of course.)
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #17 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Sat 12 May 12 10:09
    
Re: #13 (McDee): I embroider these themes in the essay in question,
"Triumph of the Shill" (_Bad Thoughts_). Bear in mind that, while we
must---however begrudgingly---give Hitler his due as "brand manager" of
Nazi iconography, Adolf's greatest graphic-design hit, the swastika,
was a light-fingered appropriation of a symbol that was already an icon
of the far-right fringe, ubiquitous in the Aryan-supremacist gutter
lit Hitler devoured during his flophouse days in Vienna. It's true, as
I note in the book, that Hitler the failed postcard painter, down and
out in Vienna, spent hours building fascist Parthenons in his daydreams
and sketching the uniforms and insignias for imaginary armies---the
movie _Max_ uses this period as a springboard its alternate-history
tale of Adolf as Infernal Performance Artist. But the branding of the
Third Reich was very much a team effort, as I noted earlier in this
thread, dreamed up by Team Nazi. For example, the infamous
death-fetishizing all-black SS uniform, which Sontag deconstructs at
some length in her essay "Fascinating Fascism," was, according to the
Wikipedia entry on the SS, "designed by SS-Oberführer Prof. Dr. Karl
Diebitsch and graphic designer Walter Heck. From 1933, the Hugo Boss
company was one of the firms that produced these black uniforms..."
Yes, *that* Hugo Boss company. Even the Nazi's distinctive
red-black-and-white color scheme had historical roots in German
imperial iconography. Executive Summary: Der Fuhrer and Team Nazi were
plagiarists. Of course, that was the least of their crimes. (Forgive
ironic understatement.)

As for the notion that "they shoulda let the guy into art school. 
Would have saved everyone a lot of trouble," well, blame it on Adolf's
meager talents. As Fest notes in his masterful biography _Hitler_, the
sketches Adolf submitted with his application were pedestrian in
conception and awkward in execution. But the argument that, in some
alternate-history Germany, Hitler could have gone on to success as a
painter---like the argument that he would've been remembered as the
architect of the German economic miracle and benign father of the
autobahn and the volkswagen if only he'd died before he did those
unpleasant things to the Jews, the Christian Scientists, the gypsies,
the gays, the mentally ill, and anyone who cracked wise about his
flatulence---forgets that Hitler was a man with lesions on his soul, a
man whose diseases of the psyche (genocidal anti-Semitism, a consuming
hatred for everyone who'd ever wronged him in real or imagined ways, a
truly sociopathic inability to empathize with the millions of "useless
eaters" he consigned to his death camps) were part of who he was, at a
molecular level. 
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #18 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Sat 12 May 12 11:17
    
Re: #15 (DLWilson): If you haven't already read Benjamin's writings on
fascism as the aestheticization of politics (most notablty, "The Mass
Ornament"), give them a whirl; they're among his best essays, I think. 
As for Kracauer, not entirely convinced the child-murdering sociopaths
and sleepwalking killers of German Expressionist cinema and Weimar
noir are as much a premonition of fascism's rise as they are a
post-traumatic shudder at the horrors of World War I, whose monstrously
disfigured walking dead wandered the streets of Europe. But the
narrative subconscious of pre-Nazi cinema has room for more than one
subtext, I suspect.

"In your first essay, you discuss zombies and vampires...There has to
be some kind of tip off in there about our current obsessions to what
is in store for us sometime in the future." 

Not quite sure I follow your meaning. Can you sharpen the point of
argument? I mean, the essay in question is *about* our obsession with
zombies and, 15 minutes ago, vampires. Are you asking if the emergence
of the shambling undead horde as a pop-culture signifier is a harbinger
of political unrest to come?

  
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #19 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 12 May 12 12:25
    
Perhaps zombies are fascists?

Always tempted to draw parallels between the global fascist rumblings
in the first half of the 20th century, and the post-millennial slide to
the right (along a well-lubricated slippery slope). However the world
feels more complex and diverse... and crowded. The shadowy cloud of
civilization's potential decline seems to have spawned a tornado or
two, but are we truly in an apocalyptic era?
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #20 of 259: (fom) Sat 12 May 12 16:26
    
this topic: godwin's law writ large.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #21 of 259: Rob Myers (robmyers) Sun 13 May 12 03:38
    
There are zombies participating in this topic??? o_O
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #22 of 259: . (wickett) Sun 13 May 12 10:26
    

Heh!

It is good, however, to draw attention to the power of spectacle to convince
the gullible or make them harmless.
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #23 of 259: David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 13 May 12 12:46
    
I think that Kracower in his film theory was on to something. His view
was that going to the movies was like dreaming in public with the rest
of the audience. The movies reflected the dreams and anxieties of the
public back at them.  You are probably right that there is no straight
line from Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse to Hitler.  But the preoccupation
with madmen and taking over the world is compelling.  I think that
Weimar Germany was riddled with authoritarianism on both the right and
the left and the movies picked up on those themes and concerns. Since
the Nazis won the battle there and people like Kracower got kicked out
on his ass and dumped out of his life, we tend to associate the
authoritarianism exclusively with the Nazis.

The horror movies from Universal Studios were basically Weimar
products but didn't have the same political resonance.  

The aliens from outer space films in the US from the 50's did have
that tinge to it.  In retrospect they can be traced to the anxieties of
the Cold War.  Then later in the 70's and 80's the slasher movies
picked up on anxieties around changing gender roles.

Turn on the TV today or go to the movies and the zombies and vampires
are all over.  The themes and messages are much different that those
cheesy 1930's programers about voodoo that I saw on television in the
50's which just expressed exotic locals and primitive customs. The
sexuality is much more explicit in the vampire products today.   
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #24 of 259: M. Dery (mark-dery) Sun 13 May 12 15:19
    
Re: #23 (DLWilson): An outtake from J.G. Ballard's "Glossary for the
20th Century": "Moviegoing, v. Dreaming in public." I like that. You'll
get no argument from me that movies channel the mass unconscious, and
that Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau gave shape to the Freudian fog hanging
thick in the Black Forests of the German mind. But those bogeymen were
more than premonitions of fascism's rise; their genealogy stretches
back through E.T.A. Hoffman (not for nothing did Freud use his
"Sandman" as a canonical example of The Uncanny) and the Brothers
Grimm, into the pre-Christian dawn of German myth and folklore, I
suspect. Of course, the turbulence of the times, especially the social
fragmentation, political unrest, and economic devastation (did I
mention anomie and alienation?) of the Weimar, unquestionably left its
impress on the morally depraved and mentally unhinged characters who
lurch through German Expressionist cinema, just as it did on the art of
George Grosz and Otto Dix and, later, the German Dadaists. By the way,
if the influence of German directors like Murnau and Lang on Hollywood
interests you, you *must* grab a copy of David J. Skal's brilliant
_The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror_. Likewise, Skal's
study of mad scientists in Cold-War horror and SF movies, _Screams of
Reason_, is nothing less than a map of the symbolic topography you're
gesturing toward.    
  
inkwell.vue.441 : Mark Dery - I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
permalink #25 of 259: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 13 May 12 18:51
    
If we accept that some cinematic works can represent a hotline (or
hotwire) from the collective unconscious and are somehow predictive of
(or drivers of) of waking-state political and cultural
manifestations-to-come, it might be fun to speculate what contemporary
films are fodder for the Jung at heart, and what shadows they might
cast on our shared futures...
  

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