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Inspector Magritte is on the Case

Pipe Dreams: The Curious Case of Rene Magritte,” the latest in my ongoing series, “Self-Help for Surrealists,” is live at Thought Catalog.


The method Magritte used to solve his philosophical “problems,” as he called them, is a Surrealist’s idea of CSI, a combination of free association, semiotic codebreaking, and Hegelian dialectic. Bridging dream logic and what might be called visual reasoning, Magritte’s approach crosses Hegel with Lautréamont with automatic drawing, resolving thesis and antithesis in a startling, poetic synthesis of images.

The Unexpected Answer

Rene Magritte, The Unexpected Answer (1933).

Case in point: The Problem of The Door. Solution:Unexpected Answer (1933), a door with an irregular shape cut out of it. Roughly the size of a hunched figure, the hole reveals a darkened room. We feel a prickling on the back of our necks, possibly because its undulating outline reminds us of the shrouded ghosts of gothic horror, or maybe because there’s just enough light falling across the threshold to pique our curiosity, tempting us to step into the unknown. It’s the door that makes the mystery, and Magritte’s door, with its peep-show view of a room full of shadow, is even more mysterious than a closed door. Which is spookier, the closed door to Room 237, the chamber of nightmares in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or the same door ajar, key dangling jauntily, daring us to step inside for a little visit? In fact, Magritte’s door is more uncanny than either, since it combines the enigma of a closed door with the eeriness of one that opens into darkness, ominously beckoning.

“Permission To Laugh: Isa Genzken’s Exceedingly Unsmiling Art”


So I was at MoMA, having just seen Magritte and, at the Morgan, Poe, when I stumbled on the Isa Genzken retrospective, a reeking midden of craptastic art-school self-indulgence. My thoughts turned to that quote from Poe’s contemporary, the critic James Russell Lowell, who called EAP “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America,” though he did allow that Poe’s pen was so corrosive it might as well have been dipped prussic acid. And I thought, “Right, then; fish, barrel, smoking gun.”


Isa Genzken, Mein Gehirn (My Brain), 1984, synthetic polymer paint on plaster, metal.


Oddly, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith sees “raw, unapologetic beauty” in Genzken’s Weltempfänger [World Receiver] (1987–89), concrete blocks fitted with radio antennas. Why cinderblock accessorized with antennas? None but the brick-thick dare ask. If you must, the press kit is here to help: they “imbue forms with narrative content through a minimum of means.” Over there, those blown-up ads for high-end stereo systems? They’re appropriations, of course — 65 years after Duchamp called a bottle rack art, but who’s counting? — at once “a celebration of the increasing perfection of commodity objects and a comment on their fetishization by the popular media” because why take a stand when you can split the difference between celebration and critique, revelry and irony, leaving no flank exposed? This is Adorno for undergrads; Frankfurt Marxism Lite.


Permission To Laugh: Isa Genzken’s Exceedingly Unsmiling Art.”

The Taxidermy of Memory: “Castle of the Living Dead”

A NEW essay, equal parts philosophical investigation (of memory, time, and museum vitrines) and memoir (mem-noir?): “Castle of the Living Dead: Time, Embalmed.”


Keywords: Taxidermy, photography as taxidermy, Christopher Lee, the uncanniness of natural-history museum vitrines, the suburban horror of nature, the author’s fossilized childhood.


Why do passing encounters with the inconsequential lodge themselves in our long-term memory, sometimes forever? What makes seemingly throwaway images get stuck in the hippocampus and stay there, for a lifetime? Castle of the Living Dead (1964) is, by universal consensus, not high art. An especially forgettable example of the spaghetti-gothic thrillers turned out by Italian moviemakers in the ’60s, it’s a low-budget affair, badly dubbed, creaky with clichés, marred by hammy performances. Yet, for all its staginess, the film settled to the bottom of my unconscious the day I saw it, at the age of eight or nine, and has lain there ever since, submerged but still visible, like the drowned death car in Night of the Hunter.




DOWNLOADABLE* NOW, at, MY FIRST E-SINGLE, a longform essay called “England My England: Anglophilia Explained.” (It’s available at iBookstore, too, I’m told, and coming soon to B&N.) What do you get for your $2.99? Nearly 8,000 (!) words of brow-furrowing about why some native-born residents of our Shining City Upon a Hill, where All Men Are Created Equal, are seduced by the fluting tones of manor-born privilege.

Time-conservation keywords: Class, power, Downton Abbey, Hitchens, Orwell, the “special relationship,” the monarchy, Dianaphiles, “Boy’s Own Paper,” “The Children’s Wonder Book in Colour,” the seductions of the Oxbridge accent, the Incredible Whiteness of Hogwarts, Mel Gibson’s blue-faced Scottish minstrelsy, the English Vice, marmite, suet, Jethro Tull, nursery literature as the script for all our dreams.

*Is there a more galumphingly awkward verb?

Want more? Here’s a brief interview with me, about the essay, by my publisher.


(CALLING OZ: Some of you have reported difficulty downloading my e-single, “England My England: Anglophilia Explained,” from Australia. My publisher writes: “Can buy it via HERE for Australia.”)





This just in: a flaming brick, neatly wrapped and tied with a pretty pink bow, just in time for International Women’s Day.

When will the smartest, most high-profile women of the tech world band together to form a tactical-media activist group—think: the Guerrilla Girls, but tech savvier—devoted to calling to account WIRED, TED, and other smarmy, self-congratulatory sinkholes of white-guy privilege for their role in perpetuating the perception that tech culture is a White Guy Thing?

To be sure, the underrepresentation of women and people of color in the sciences and in the upper reaches of tech-industry management is the result of an unhappy convergence of socioeconomic factors. But, just as obviously, media representations play a role in shaping peoples’ sense of the avenues of possibility that are open—or closed—to them. The African-American SF visionary Samuel Delany made this point with his usual unstudied eloquence when he told me, in an interview, that the semiotic trappings of traditional “hard” SF in the Asimov mode were understood, by blacks and women, as shorthand for “Keep Out; White Guys Only.”

wired-1Get out your angry bean-counter’s scorecard and take a look at this gallery of WIRED covers and tell me my teenage daughter and her girlfriends won’t get the not-terribly-subliminal message, loud and clear:

wired2012: No people of color, no women, a bunch of white guys.
2011: Two white guys. Rare sighting of a (white) woman. Bonus point: she’s a Rosie-the-Riveter poster girl for Maker culture.
2010: More White Guys of a Certain Age, no ethnic or racial minorities, some CGI white guys, a pair of breasts on a decapitated body. Valerie Solanas, pink courtesy phone; Valerie Solanas…
2009: The requisite complement of white guys, a vaguely gyndroidal (white) woman who appears to be naked (but of course!) with an artfully airbrushed sideboob and—what’s this? A black man?! Of course, he’s an athlete—what other kind of black man is there, besides musician?—putting a face on a story about Nike.
2008: More white guys, a (white) female customer-support drone in a TECH SUPPORT T-shirt—lest we confuse her for one of the pale, male Captains of Industry fulsomely lionized by the tech press—and, just when you were beginning to worry, a fwap-fwap-friendly cover shoot of Julia Allison, sleek gams up to here, plunging cleavage down to there. “Julia Allison can’t act. She can’t sing. She’s not rich. But thanks to a genius for self-promotion, she’s become an Internet celebrity.” Women We Love, by Wired.
2007: A bumper crop of political correctness! An Asian guy and *three* women! The Asian guy is ethno-correctly equipped with the stereotypic katana (what, no Wong Brothers Laundry Service T-shirt?). The women include an otaku-licious manga babe with pneumatic breasts, a cute dress-for-success corporate babe holding a sign reading “Get Naked” (the feature she’s ballyhooing is about “radical transparency,” hence the punny lad-zine cover art), and Martha Stewart, fondling a pastry bag with a salacious twinkle in her eye. (OKAY, I’m angling for the Overreading Award, having my own private CLAM-PLATE ORGY here, and yes, Martha is a Doyenne of Domesticity so the image makes sense, but Just Look at That Suggestive Sack. Just Look At It.
2006: More white guys, a woman lolling languidly in a tangle of sheets, steaming the mylar off your copy of the magazine with bedroom eyes that say “post-coital languor,” and another cover featuring a pair of big, James Rosenquist-y, concupiscent female lips popping a pill.

I could go on, but why bother? Have yourself a dreary little death march, down through the WIRED years, trying to find a cover with a woman or a person of color who embodies tech savvy or scientific knowledge or business acumen. If there are any, they’re few and far between.

From a casual survey of TED’s hugely popular video clips, the same holds true for the elite, invitation-only conference, which has always struck me as a Bohemian Grove for geeks.

Tell me this doesn’t matter, in a world where kids take their cues—from their vastly extended social networks, sure, and from their parents, certainly—but at least equally from the media.

At a moment when we perceive the world around us, and make sense of it, through media representations, the images women and people of color see of themselves (or not) in the funhouse mirrors of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Web media, and magazine covers have the power to disempower—or empower; to inspire people of color and young girls to find their own uses for technological innovation and scientific literacy or to resign themselves to walk-on roles, in the white-guy Tomorrowland brought to you by TED and WIRED, as dumb meat, not exalted mind—jocks in Nikes, maybe, or a pair of tits in search of a brain.



“Are Anglophiles born or made? Or cultured in a medium of suet and sentimentality, romanticism and Marmite?”


My first longform essay for e-reader, out from Thought Catalog publications this Monday, March 11; available from Amazon (Kindle) and iBookstore; Barnes & Noble (Nook) to follow.


Downton Abbey has brought out the Anglophile in American fans of the hit TV series. But Anglophilia has a long history in America. Why are some native-born residents of our Shining City Upon a Hill, where All Men Are Created Equal, seduced by the fluting tones of manor-born privilege? At last, Anglophilia explained—in American, thank you.



It’s Raining Links! Round Up of Bad Thoughts Reviews

"The View From Brian's Chair."

Live, on the Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC, NPR affiliate, NYC). If I look a little tipsy, it’s because I’m drunk on the power of the elite liberal media, subliminally fondling the American unconscious with the long, sticky tendrils of my socialist thought.

My latest, the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, is turning out to be The Little Buzz Engine That Could.

Here’s a collection, in no particular order, of links to recent reviews and interviews.

Archived audio of Brian Lehrer’s fast-paced, high-spirited interview with me here. Brian was a wonderfully engaging interviewer; he’s obviously a Shao-Lin Master at bringing out the best in his interviewees. (Don’t forget to read the comment thread. Makes a beer-sodden crowd of Juggalos look like an MLA panel. Who knew the word “neologism”—or, for that matter, the admittedly more Zizek-friendly “emblematize”—would goad the trolls into such a frenzy of pugnacious populism? I really *do* live the sheltered life.)

• Recalling the Rodney King beating and the subsequent L.A. uprising, Caitlin Shamberg of KCRW asked me for my thoughts about citizen surveillance and the Eye of Power.

• A reviewer’s dream: a review that’s at least as smart as the book itself:  Joshua Ellis reviews Bad Thoughts for Las Vegas CityLife.

Matthew Newton reviews the book and conducts the Mother of All Interviews for The Verge. “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts…places the nation’s infinite oddities and dark undercurrents in full display, is a perfect example of his tinted worldview. Cracking open the book shows a willingness to go down the rabbit hole into a fantastic world of absurdist reality…[Dery’s] black comedic sense of humor is pervasive throughout.” Newton’s close reading and provocative questions make this one swing.

• Be still, my heart: William Gibson tweets about Bad Thoughts again!

(Hive Mind: If you know what “soul delay” is, enlighten me via Twitter @markdery.)

•  David Hudson wonders if Bad Thoughts is the new Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.

• “Gay, straight or binary”? i09 runs my essay on Alan Turing and the queerness of the 2001 computer HAL, in its entirety. Comment-thread hijinx ensue.

• Cultural critic Erik Davis and co-host Maja D’aoust talk to me, on their radio show “The Expanding Mind,” about the Pathological Sublime, “stoner noir,” my cancer essay, the cultural psyche of Southern California, and more. Buckle your seatbelt; this one’s a vertiginous, Tilt-a-Whirl ride.

• “As a bookworm who took inordinate delight in surfers munched by sharks, I was destined to write Gorey’s biography”: John Wilkens of the San Diego Union-Tribune asked me some wonderfully thought-provoking questions about my writing, my philosophy of criticism, and growing up in the suburban badlands and borderlands of San Diego’s South Bay.

• “Snap judgment: These off-kilter essays don’t take themselves too seriously but shine an entertaining and sometimes insightful light on the corners of pop culture.” I’ll file this one under Fond Snark.

Rick McGrathappreciate[s] Dery’s snap-ass way with the word-whacker.” Makes me feel almost indecent.

David Lida, brilliant analyst of Mexico’s cultural psyche, overcomes his distaste for cultural criticism.

Jason Boog (GalleyCat) and I talk Nazi branding, Jack Chick, and Seven Degrees of Michiko Kakutani. Archived audio HERE.

• YESSS!!! BOINGED!  [[Pumps fist in air, makes devil horns at computer screen, plays X title track at maximum volume on GrooveShark]]

• Big Fun: Technoculture critic and zippie legend R.U. Sirius talks to me about American manhood, lavender linguistics, and “the politics of the polysyllabic.”

• I love it: Graham Rae makes me sound even more moonbat-fringe-y than I actually am. “Dery gleefully picks up a great many taboo-subject rocks, shows us what’s squirming sightless unseen underneath them, then crushes the stupidity of the more deserving targets to death with the selfsame stone.”

• And then the incomparably Australian cultural theorist Darren Tofts goes and does him one better:

With the eviscerating Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, [Dery] carved out a new identity for himself as the psychopathologist of the American unconscious. Following all too slowly on its heels, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts takes us beyond the brink into the maw of something distastefully uncanny, something so horribly real that it can’t possibly exist. CGI cinema certainly has a lot to answer for. … Collecting [these essays] into a single volume concentrates the intensity of the trip we are about to take, rather like pumping up the juice on the electric chair, or getting medieval on the plunger of a lethal injection.

• Scarily smart, acidulously funny, and a prose stylist of Hitchensian gifts, Tim Cavanaugh, of Reason magazine, likes my “hyperurbanized pomo japery.”  (Why I Love the Intertubes: 56 comments, two of which are actually on-topic.)

More hyperurbanized pomo japery from Darren Tofts.

Previous reviews for Bad Thoughts HERE.

Mad Men

An essay on the unsettling Lilliputian diorama photography of Nicholas Cobb, at 21.C, reprinted from Photofile magazine:

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

Photo: Nicholas Cobb, The Office Park; copyright Nicholas Cobb, all rights reserved.


Like the yuppie apartment-tower dwellers in David Cronenberg’s Shivers, driven to acts of bacchanalian depravity by a sexually transmitted parasite, or the residents in J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, whose class war escalates into a Conradian nightmare of atavism, the workers in Nicholas Cobb’s office park seem to be possessed by a collective dementia.

In the open-plan offices and idyllic green spaces of The Office Park, the park’s manmade lake is a strange attractor for anti-social behavior, random acts of irrationality, and worse—a black lagoon whose glossy surface, insinuating in its seamlessness, hints at what the crime writer James Ellroy calls our “dark places,” beneath the faces our coworkers see. Security guards attempt to coax a man off a rocky islet; a crowd gathers to watch someone out for a bracing swim, fully clothed.

There’s a crime scene around every corner, almost—investigators in white biohazard suits, police divers preparing for a descent into the lake, in search of missing persons. Even the flock of dark birds wheeling and diving through a few scenes—a murder of crows on loan from The Birds? An unkindness of ravens from Masahisa Fukase’s Solitude of Ravens?—is a psychic semaphore, signaling menace.

Photo: Nicholas Cobb, The Office Park; copyright Nicholas Cobb, all rights reserved.

MORE, at 21.C.

(NOTE: All images courtesy Nicholas Cobb, The Office Park.)