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Just One Question for Mark Dery
Feb 11, 1998 :: David Hudson

David Hudson is the author of Rewired (the book) and is responsible for Rewired (the web site). He recently had a chance to ask Mark Dery, author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century and the upcoming The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, just one question.

HUDSON: You describe yourself in your bio at Suck as a "cultural critic," and in your description of what we can expect to see in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, I didn't catch a single reference to the Net and the culture that has supposedly sprouted around it. And yet in some circles, you're primarily known as a "cybercultural critic", for your critiques of the various strains of techno-utopianism (e.g. Escape Velocity, "A Declaration of the Obsolescence of Cyberhype" and your scathing dissection of Wired, "Unplugged"). Does "cyberculture" make an appearance at all in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium? Are you personally bored with "cyberculture" or have you simply decided you've been there, done that, and it's time to move on?

DERY: If references to the Net and "the culture that has supposedly sprouted around it" are missing from the promo blurb for The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, that's because cyberculture is no longer a clump of barnacles clinging to the shadowy underside of the ship of state. Software moguls like Bill Gates and multinational multimedia barons like Rupert Murdoch cast long shadows across all of our lives, and the social and economic reverberations of the Information Revolution are rattling our bedrock assumptions about the way the world works. The cultural logic of the Information Age is presumed, from now on; it's part of the ambient noise of our mental lives. I'm well aware that roughly 60 percent of U.S. households don't even own computers, let alone modems, but our shift from a manufacturing economy to a symbol-manipulating one and the cultural shock waves that have followed it---the automation of the workplace, the advent of the outsourced "virtual" corporation and just-in-time manufacturing, the rise of the permanent temp, and the immiseration already in progress, brought to you by what William Greider memorably calls "the manic logic of global capitalism"---are universally felt.

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, an essay collection that takes its title from a 19th century catchphrase for Coney Island, where funhouse and madhouse met, is a poetic attempt to plot the fluid dynamics of millennial America---cultural chaos theory for a society that seems to be spinning out of control as the counter zeroes out, at the end of the century. In my analyses of gritty, "political" subjects like the Unabomber or the militia movement or neo-traditional planned communities such as Disney's Celebration, as well as squishier, "cultural" ones, like serial killer fandom or alien abductees or the art-world vogue for mutant bodies and morbid anatomy, I'm trying to strike a delicate equilibrium between Marxian materialism and Barthesian playfulness, between sociological spadework intended to expose the buried economic roots of even the most seemingly apolitical phenomena and a freewheeling cultural criticism that recognizes that there's more to our lives than some clockwork pas de deux of domination and transgression. I want to concede the importance of all the little conscientious objections, in our daily lives, to The Society of the Spectacle(tm) while at the same time not overemphasizing the rituals of resistance sanctified by cultural studies professors or, more vacuously, certain GenXploitative pundits who shall remain nameless. The notion that the "hidden agendas" in "Ren & Stimpy" constitute some sort of memetic logic bomb that will do our political work for us, eating away at the foundations of oppression while we channel-surf, is eye-crossingly inane; the only revolution that's going to be carried out from our Barcaloungers, zappers in hand, is Nike's "Revolution in Fitness," set to the Beatles tune.

Even so, I'm still interested, as I was in Escape Velocity, in the politics of myth---in the profound economic dislocation and our loss of faith in the democratic experiment (or in any sense of common cause, for that matter) that resurface, in our collective dream life, as the paranoid zeitgeist of "The X-Files" or the apocalyptic premonitions of David Koresh or the rocket-finned gnosticism of the Heaven's Gate cult. But partly in response to the critical charge that too many of the political actors in Escape Velocity (the post-industrial workforce, for example) spent the whole book offstage, I'm filing the teeth of my critique to razor fangs, in this book.

 

 

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