Sunday, May 27, 2012

"I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"

EVER wondered what it would sound like if the British writer J.G. Ballard fronted an L.A. punk band? I hadn't either, frankly, but the question crossed my mind reading the new anthology of essays and articles by Mark Dery. Twisted, brilliant, overly ornate and penetrating, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts brings him to Skylight Books on Tuesday. (I only regret there is no essay on the Bavarian Illuminati or the Church of the Subgenius.)

I could say more, but let me present my Q+A with Mr. Dery.

Your book is all over the place – the Super Bowl, Jack Chick’s apocalyptic comic books, Hitler. What makes a topic right for you, and how do they all hold together?

I listen for the sound of table-rapping. Seriously, there's an element of the late 19th-century spiritualist seance in what I do, in the sense that I wait for things to call my name, rather than chasing the viral story of the day, the meme of the moment, the latest counterintuitive lightbulb over Gladwell's head, the zeitgeisty trend keeping David Brooks up late. 

To me, the most interesting minds are those like, say, the incomparably eccentric Edward Gorey, the subject of my biography-in-progress, or J.G. Ballard, to whom the new book is dedicated and whose critical sensibility (one hesitates to call it a school of thought, since it had a membership of one) pervades it---minds that follow the fractal branchings of their intellectual infatuations wherever they lead, a form of philosophical investigation that maximizes serendipity and novelty, and is conducive to the inspired apercu. I try to emulate that approach---to the detriment of my checking account, no doubt!

Obviously, if you're going to do cultural criticism outside the academy, in the popular press, you need a "news peg," as editors like to call it---something timely to hang your Big Idea on. Even so, the herd behavior of some of the brightest minds in the culture industry---Outliers: The Story of SuccessWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and on and on---just curdles my brain. It's as if somebody in the marketing department had written a flocking program for book publishing---you know, that software they use to make CGI birds swarm. Why anyone would want to think a thought that's already been thought is unthinkable, at least to me. But much of what passes for journalism in this country, and too much of what we call public intellectualism (a term I cordially loathe), consists of telling people what they already know, in words of one syllable, presuming a level of cultural literacy that wouldn't furrow Kim Kardashian's brow.

As you note, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a kind of omnium-gatherum, or, more appropriate to its style and subject matter, a curiosity cabinet between two covers. My abiding obsession is the American Gothic, what Cornel West calls "the night side of American democracy" (although my sensibility is more Menckenesque than West's, closer to Twain at his darkest---a gene-splice of Barthes and Bierce and William S. Burroughs, perhaps).

For reasons both radically political and mythological, I'm endlessly fascinated by America: what America means, what it means to be American. Thus, I'm drawn to the quintessentially American. But it's those aspects of the American experience that dramatize our pious hypocrisies, our gleeful depravities, our exuberant violence---the pathologies hiding behind the American Dream---that seem perfectly suited to my pen, and my style of mind. So the essays in Bad Thoughts hold together in the sense that nearly all of them are fondly sardonic portraits of the American psyche, sometimes my own, drawn with a scalpel. 

You dedicate this volume to the late, great J.G. Ballard. What made him important to you, and to this project? 

My dedication reads: "To J.G. Ballard, pathologist of the postmodern, astronaut of inner space, matchless stylist, generous mentor." Pathologist of the postmodern: because he understood, long before philosophers like Baudrillard, that the postmodern self is a decentered, centrifugal thing, spun off its Freudian axis by info vertigo and the media spectacle. Astronaut of inner space: because he explored the starless wastes of the 20th-century mind, mapping the black holes left in our collective consciousness by the atom bomb, Freud, the Third Reich, Kennedy's assassination, the Manson murders, the space race, advertising, psychoanalysis, Surrealism, pornography, Pop Art, Vietnam, Thatcherism, the mind-blurring speed-up of virtually everything, the deluge of images inundating our dream lives, the psychopathologies buried beneath suburbia's manicured lawns, and the effects of living in a posthuman landscape of exurban office parks, multistory parking garages, high-rise apartment buildings, traffic islands, and freeway flyovers.

Matchless stylist: because he perfected that inimitably British blend of clubbable geniality, mordant wit, and deadpan irony, expressed in a prose that managed the neat trick of being both elegant in its economy yet obsessive in its unapologetic fondness for talismanic phrases, images, and even a syntax that have, as a result, become instantly and inescapably identifiable as Ballardian. For my money, Ballard is one of the unapproachable masters of English prose style, no less so than Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh or, in his essays, Orwell, marrying the Wildean aphorism to the Warholian showstopper to deadly (and deadly funny) effect.

He was a black humorist and social satirist par excellence. Any line from his classic novels---Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Drowned World, The Crystal World, The Kindness of Women, or the defining short stories---is easily the equal, for  oracular brilliance, of the pronouncements tossed off by French philosopher kings. And, as I said, Ballard got there first.

Generous mentor: because he was an early and unstinting supporter of my work, generous in his praise on my book jackets and equally so in the wise counsel he offered, down through the years, in handwritten faxes. I've saved these scrolls, but they're fading into irradiated whiteness---which seems somehow appropriate, given Ballard's childhood, a premature coming-of-age illuminated by the apocalyptic flashbulb of the atom bomb, as he recounts in Empire of the Sun.

As I've often said, I read postmodern philosophers like Baudrillard as SF novelists, and Ballard as our preeminent postmodern philosopher. He's especially useful to me, as a writer trying to make sense of America: his affectionate horror at the moral obscenity and unimprovable vulgarity of our fair republic, observed from the safe remove of his living room armchair in suburban Shepperton, a whiskey and soda within easy reach, makes him the ideal anatomist of our cultural psyche.

Maybe you could give us a little taste of how you approach a subject: How do you reckon with David Bowie in your essay on Ziggy Stardust? 

"Stardust Memories," the essay on Bowie and his role in ringing down the curtain on the '60s and ushering in the '70s, was nominally a review of a Bowie biography for The Las Vegas Weekly. However, one thing I learned from Ballard's essays disguised as book reviews (many of which are collected in his User's Guide to the Millennium) is that a book review need only passingly be about the book at hand; using that book as a springboard into the Intellectual Beyond, or as a prism for refracting the reviewer's obsessions, is infinitely more interesting than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down school of "service-oriented" book reviewing.

The Bowie biography under consideration was a reasonably competent Life of the Grand Dame---a mash-up of newspaper clippings, interviews with the usual suspects, and perhaps most interestingly the author's interpolations of moments from his own parallel history, as a Bowie fan, shadowing developments on the overlit stage of Bowie's life. A lifelong Bowie votary myself, I knew I wanted to "out" myself as a fan, in this piece, speaking as a fan yet also as a cultural critic, drawing not only on the subcultural studies of Birmingham-school critics like Dick Hebdige and participant-observer anthropologists of fan cultures such as Henry Jenkins, but also on the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs's pioneering use of record reviews of forgettable bands, for throwaway rags, as tours-de-force of cultural criticism at its most deeply felt, and thought, often using his fandom (famously, toward Lou Reed) as a foil for his critical inquiry.

I wanted to examine Bowie's role  (along with Freddie Mercury of Queen, whom I touch on in Bad Thoughts' essay on Lady Gaga) as an incarnation of the Wildean Aesthete, a standard-bearer in the culture war between artifice, irony, camp, retro, polysexual perversity, and cynical wit, on one hand, and authenticity, earnestness, naturalism, nostalgia, hippie heteronormativity, and humorless moralizing on the other. And I wanted to further complexify that role by thinking about Bowie as a glam-rock trickster, a god of the crossroads ushering us out of the '60s and into the '70s ("My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/ We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag/ Too many snags," Bowie sings, in his glam-rock anthem "All the Young Dudes").

At the same time, I wanted to think about the meaning of Bowie fandom in my life, specifically what it meant to me as a palely loitering weirdo, marooned in the suburban wastelands of culturally backwards, politically conservative San Diego in the 1970s; what it meant to American masculinity; and what it means to me now, as a less-than-pretty-thing of A Certain Age. 

This kind of very personal take on culture – especially about stuff that’s off the mainstream  -- gets harder and harder to place these days. Do you worry about the direction the world of print is taking and that this eccentric stripe of writing will become a thing of the past? Or are blogs and the Internet helping it flourish?

Well, I'm happy to be called eccentric, if that's shorthand for any writer who believes style is politics, and who bridles at the insistence that less is always more; that literary style in age of the tweet and the PowerPoint presentation should aspire to bullet-point brevity and, ideally, assume the form of a listicle; that the more writing sounds like talking, the better; and that writers who overstep the boundaries of everyday vocabulary, sending their readers to the dictionary, are the merest elitists and an offense to public morals  generally.

To be sure, clarity and concision are hallmarks of good prose. But I'm convinced the War on Ornament is really a kulturkampf against the intellectual and the queer, in every sense of that word. It begins with Adolf Loos's famous rant, "Ornament and Crime," in which the proto-modernist architect argues that Art Nouveau is a decadent, effeminate force for evil, hastening society's decline; continues through Strunk & White and the Hemingway cult; and is alive and well in all those "Rules for Writing" screeds by famous authors floating around the Web. It pretends to be about clarity and concision, but is really about policing the boundaries of mainstream thought and expression. Again, style is politics, and the modernist cult of stripped-down, "masculine" prose is both an extension of Machine-Age, Bauhausian minimalism, with all the ideological baggage that implies, and a stalking horse for a cultural conservatism that views the long, syntactically complex Proustian sentence and the unapologetically sesquipedalian vocabulary as a thumb in the eye of the common man, which is to say un-American and maybe even unmanly.

So yes, I do worry about a cultural climate in which every American public intellectual aspires to the status of motivational speaker for anxious executives, and writes the sort of PowerPoint prose he hopes will make him a hot commodity on the CEO-retreat lecture circuit. It's the Gladwell Effect, and the editorial sensibility at mainstream outlets is very much a part of it.

The happy counterweight to that trend, as you suggest, is Web publications such as The Awl and HiLoBrow and The L.A. Review of Books (full disclosure: they just published a piece of mine) and The New Inquiry, which rejoice in longform, erudite, historically literate, critically informed writing. Regrettably, none of the above pay anything like a living wage, which makes it harder than ever for a full-time hack to earn his daily crust. 

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