The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink
Like any good cultural critic, Mark Dery knows how to work a metaphor. The title of his newest collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, refers to Coney Island at the end of the 19th century and its vertiginous blend of wonder and horror--from the light shows to the freak shows. Coney Island, Dery suggests, was a delirious spectacle that spoke to a nervousness about the 20th-century to come, and the author sees today's fractured electronic media reflecting our own anxieties in the same dizzying way.
Insanitarium traces the vapor trails of a number of cultural phenomena: the media reaction to the cloning of a sheep; the cultish cell of Nike employees who call themselves EKINs; the Disney-planned city of Celebration, Fla. Dery, who explored fringe computer culture in his previous book Escape Velocity, is at his best when he zooms in on the previously unexplored facets of his stories. Discussing how the media treated the Heaven's Gate mass suicide as "an object lesson in the evils of spending too much time on-line," he notes that the cult's cyber-outreach efforts actually stirred up a fierce backlash. A proselytizing mass newsgroup posting gained them a few converts, but the "ridicule, or hostility, or both" that characterized the vast majority of responses was strong enough to convince Heaven's Gate to leave this planet.
At points in the book, Dery lays the primary blame for our angst on what he dubs "the Gilded Age, version 2.0"--a second era when the delusions and delights of the moneyed few drown out the voices of the impoverished. In doing so, he places himself in the company of other old-school dissenters such as Noam Chomsky and Lewis Lapham, and the perennially angry political journal The Baffler, who focus on material matters of oppression while avoiding the Balkanization of modern multicultural scholarship. Unfortunately, Dery seems ill-prepared to contribute to these dialogues: His essays linger too long on points, such as America's precipitous income disparity, or the retreat of the global elite from civic engagement, that have already been treated at length in the lefty media.
What's more of a disappointment is Dery's dispassionate take on his subject matter. He roots his analysis in the more tragic consequences of the wrecking ball of global capitalism--dropping wages, vanishing job security, and mass firings--but loses that sense of humanity once he enters the rarefied strata of lit crit and media deconstruction. His distanced essays compare poorly to, say, those of The Baffler: At least that journal's best arguments build upon a core of steely outrage; they're less like ambling discourses and more like battle cries. (Tellingly, one of the most common criticisms of The Baffler, and other brash leftist polemicists like Michael Moore, is that they lack authority to speak compassionately for the swelling ranks of the working poor--as if that were the jurisdiction of who, exactly? CNN? Forbes Magazine?)
To be fair, Dery has succeeded in writing a suitable primer for reading the media at the fin de millennium, a respectable goal in itself. But that doesn't change the fact that we need less writing that showcases erudition while masking more immediate, ground-level concerns. What we need is for capable and perceptive writers like Mark Dery to put their hearts into their work: to write as if it actually mattered, and not just to turn the last tooth in the gears of a grad-school education.