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Category Archives: Floating Signifier

Love in the Time of Swine Flu


Couple, Mexico City. Photo: David Lida. All rights reserved.

Newsflash: the June 2009 issue of The Brooklyn Rail includes “Love in the Time of Swine Flu,” my feature on David Lida, pegged on the softcover release of First Stop in the New World, his addictively readable book about Mexico City.


Now that the epidemic seems to have peaked, with a global body count far lower than the Andromeda Strain horror scripted by the U.S. media, reasonable minds on both sides of the border are taking a hard look at the media etiology of the panic. When American anxiety was at its height, Right Wing frothing heads like Michelle Malkin and Michael Savage helped spread the hate, blaming the Creeping Pig Death on the engulfing tide of “uncontrolled immigration” (Malkin). “Make no mistake about it: illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico,” Savage barked.

David Lida’s affection for the city remains undiminished. In the new paperback edition of his justifiably acclaimed First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, Lida rips and remixes the ‘hypermetropolis, the ur-urb of the American continent’ into a fast-moving mashup.”

Even so, the book is no Travel Channel puff piece.

In the chapter on crime, ‘Who’s Afraid of Mexico City?’ Lida describes his harrowing hours, in 1996, as the victim of what locals call a secuestro express (express kidnapping), in which a pair of goons held him and his then-wife at knifepoint on a cab ride from hell, trying his credit card at various ATMs.

Two hours is a long time under such circumstances, and we were able to engage in a little Stockholm-syndrome dialogue. The Gorilla was the most voluble. Soon after the joyride began he informed us that what was happening was not his fault but the government’s, for turning its back on its neediest citizens and forcing them to steal to survive. [My wife] was quick to point out that neither she nor I had any connection with the regime. “Les toc&oacute,” he said, in a perfect illustration of Mexican fatalism. Your number came up.


Couple, Mexico City. Photo: David Lida. All rights reserved.

Nature Morte: Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque (Giftware #2)

WHAT: “Nature Morte: Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque,” a chapter from The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove/Atlantic: 1999) uploaded to the file-sharing site SCRIBD.


Wax venus (Baroque obstetric mannequin) from La Specola, in Florence, Italy. Photo: Joanna Ebenstein; all rights reserved. For more of this sort of thing, see Ebenstein’s stunning wunderkammer, Morbid Anatomy.

THE OFFICIAL VERSION (SCRIBD ENTRY): In “Nature Morte: Formaldehyde Photography and the New Grotesque,” a chapter from his meditation on the millenial zeitgeist, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove/Atlantic: 1999), cultural critic Mark Dery analyzes the abject aesthetic he calls the New Grotesque, exemplified by the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin and Rosamond Purcell, Nine Inch Nails videos such as “Closer,” David Fincher’s movie Seven, and most notably the obscure subculture of medical-museum tourists whose mecca is the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. “If the Enlightenment ushered in the ‘disenchantment of the world,’ as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno put it, postmodernism returns us to the age of wonder—and terror,” writes Dery. “Now, as we return to a world of gods and monsters, there’s a burgeoning fascination, on the cultural fringes, with congenital deformities, pathological anatomy, and other curious from the cabinet of wonder.”

Drawing on Lawrence Weschler’s study of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder), Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig’s seminal essay “Repulsion: Aesthetics of the Grotesque,” Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, Wolfgang Kayser’s landmark study of the grotesque, and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1845 paean to “worshippers of morbid anatomy,” Dery theorizes the Pathological Sublime, an aesthetic emotion that is equal parts horror and wonder, inspired by works of art (or nature) that hold beauty and repulsion in perfect, quivering tension. The Pathological Sublime is the sensation Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote, “‘Tis so appalling—it exhilarates…”

NOTE: Author reserves all rights. However, users are free to download this PDF for their own use and to circulate it freely AS LONG AS they do not post the entire PDF online or publish the entire PDF in print. (Feel free to blog this page and link to it, though! And linking to the Amazon page for the book would be The Right Thing to Do.) No re-use or re-publication of this PDF FOR PROFIT, in any medium, is permitted.


Photo: Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy.

Delirious Urbanism

“I knew Sterling when he was an Aztec pimp”: the SF writer and Fine Young Ballardian Chris Nakashima-Brown, quoting William Gibson talking about Bruce Sterling. Neither of us could parse Gibson’s one-liner, but it had a certain corkscrew logic to it.


La Nave de los Monstruous. (Ship of Monsters)

Nakashima-Brown and I were in Mexico City last week, along with Sterling, Christopher Priest, M. John Harrison, and Linda Nagata, for “Parallel Worlds,” part of the venerable Festival de Mexico en el Centro Historico. (I gave a lecture titled “Myths of the Next Five Minutes: A Science Fiction of the Future Present,” which used Ballard’s 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash as a jumping-off point for some speculations on the cultural role, and literary possibilities, of science fiction after the extinction of the future and the obsolescence of utopia.)

Outside Tlatelolco.JPG

Outside the Tlaltelolco conference hall. L-to-R: M. John Harrison, Mauricio Montiel Figueiras, Chris Nakashima-Brown, your host, Christopher Priest.
Mexico City is the capital of the 21st century, to borrow the subtitle of David Lida’s First Stop in the New World, an addictively readable, pants-splittingly hilarious dérive through the world’s second most populous city (Tokyo is the first) and undeniably one of its most vibrant. Lida’s book is an intellectual luge ride through The Labyrinth of Solitude; a videogame for virtual flaneurs, based on Benjamin’s Arcades Project but relocated to the D.F. (Distrito Federal), with a nonstop Mex-tec soundtrack.


Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns (Giftware #1)


Recently, while ego-surfing GOODREADS, I stumbled across a review of my 1999 meditation on millennial America, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium:

“i re-read this book and enjoyed it as much the second time. its focus is really on some of the darker threads of the fin-de-millennium american culture. end of the century apocalyptic schizo kinda stuff. killer clowns, branding, post humanism, aliens, and conspiracies. it is just as relevant now as it was when i first read it at the end of the 90’s. it confirms to me that somewhere near the end of 2001 time started running in reverse…”

Naturally, the thought that everything old is new again gives hope to those of us midlist authors languishing in the remainder bin of history. Then, too, there is an almost ’90s-style sense in what was once referred to (in all seriousness) as our American empire, that the gyre is widening, the center cannot hold, and the tassel-loafered Wall Street swine jostling for space at the public trough should be driven off the nearest cliff. On bOING bOING, Dan Gillmor sounded a portentous note:

“Like lots of folks these days, I find myself speculating about whether we’re heading into something worse than a bad recession, such as the kind of calamity that tests civilization. Back in my younger days I played music for a living. […] At one point, gloomier than usual about humanity’s future, I wrote a song about how people like us would (or wouldn’t) get along when the apocalypse happened, something I feared might be imminent. It wasn’t, then, but I’m wondering again.”

Deep in the comment thread, a reader named Dainel wrote, “All this talk of doom reminds me of 1999. Don’t anyone remember that? Is every one here less than 20 years old?”

True, the militia movement seems to have switched into dormant mode (although white supremacists still fantasize about bringing The Turner Diaries‘ Mother of All Race Wars to a bloodbath near you). And the omens of millennium that darkened American dreams a decade ago—alien autopsies, black helicopters, Heaven’s Gate suicide cultists, Timothy McVeigh-style Angry White Guys, Unabombers who just wanted to watch industrial society burn—have given way to a low-lying despair, the deepening sense that the United States of the near future is going to look a lot like the Weimar republic in its last, hyperinflationary days, when people were using banknotes as wallpaper and postage stamps had a face value of 50 billion Marks.

Still, Wired is once again waving the techno-libertarian flag, though its triumphalism is a bit frayed around the edges and looks depressingly like garden-variety neo-liberalism (with a dash of Gladwellian screw-the-spotted-owl contrarianism to validate its cubicle-warrior coolness quotient). 24 is the new X-Files.
Unfrozen CyberGuy Kevin Kelly—who was wondering, not so long ago, “Say the Dow hits 100,000 by 2010. Would that surprise you?”—is back with yet more musings on the Unabomber. The inimitable Terence McKenna is no longer with us to hawk his ’90s vision of the Coming Singularity at the End of Time™, but a flock of McKenna epigones—the Marjoes of the magic mushroom set, the Robert Schullers of psychoactive alkaloids—are barnstorming the Esalen hot tub-and-Burning Man circuit with suspiciously familiar-sounding talk of a zodiac mindwarp in 2012.


What better time for me to catch the last wave of the ’90s revival, disaggregate The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, and offer up a few chapters for your delectation, in PDF form, courtesy Scribd?

Here, then is, my first donation to the Creative Commons:

Cotton Candy Autopsy: Deconstructing Psycho-Killer Clowns,” from The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink.

(I still hold copyright to this essay, obviously, but encourage readers to re-post and re-publish it at will, as long as you add the following boilerplate:

©Mark Dery; this essay originally appeared as a chapter in The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink.

A link to the online bookseller of your choice, or to the Pyro page on this site, would be the right thing to do.)

In the Scribd blurb, I synopsize it as follows (in the Bob Dole-ian third person):

Using as his point of departure Lon Chaney’s chilling observation that “there’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight,” Dery deconstructs the postmodern archetype of the psychopathic clown. In this perversely funny, closely argued essay, Dery ranges broadly over the psychic geography of American culture. Balm for the souls of those scarred for life by childhood encounters with balloon-twisting bogeymen in fright wigs.

Keywords: evil clowns, clownaphobia, John Wayne Gacy, Cacophony Society, culture jamming, Batman, The Joker, R.K. Sloane, Shakes the Clown, Jim Knipfel, The Fool, Stephen King’s IT, Quentin Tarantino, American pathologies, Bakhtin, the carnivalesque, Arkham Asylum.

“Can’t sleep, clowns will eat me…”


(Thanks to Gareth Branwyn, for his kind words about my essay—the inspiration, in part, for my decision to donate it to the Gift Economy.)

Always Crashing in the Same Car

bob the crash dummy.JPG

All together now: “Warm leatherette/ Melts on your burning flesh/ You can see your reflection/ In the luminescent dash …”

For the fervent Ballardians, especially the obsessive completists among them, who enjoyed last week’s post, I’ve archived PDFs of the various versions of my lengthy, in-depth interviews with JGB and director David Cronenberg, published in 1997 to coincide with the American release of Crash, Cronenberg’s film of the Ballard novel of the same name. (The files in question are actually housed on the free, brutally cool document-sharing site Scribd, which David Pescovitz of bOING bOING brought to my attention. (Thanks, David!, as they say on bb.))


J.G. Ballard: Pathologist of the Postmodern


J.G. Ballard. Photo: Paul Murphy. All rights reserved.

My review of J.G. Ballard’s nonfiction memoir Miracles of Life is out, in the L.A. Weekly.

Read it here.

“Nonfiction,” meaning: scrupulously factual, a distinction one makes in the wake of bogus confessionals such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Margaret B. Jones’s Love and Consequences, and in light of Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and its less-than-bestselling (but by my lights more lyrical) sequel, The Kindness of Women, both of which are forthrightly fabulist.

Ballard’s latest account of his Shanghai boyhood, his wartime years in a Japanese-run internment camp for British civilians, and his postwar exploits, playing the discreetly subversive Marcel Duchamp of New Wave SF (to Michael Moorcock’s gonzo Salvador Dali) while raising three children single-handedly, may be his last, or at least his penultimate, book. As devout Ballardians know, the 78-year-old author is battling advanced prostate cancer. Ballard’s longtime agent Margaret Hanbury is reportedly shopping a report from the cancer ward, Conversations with My Physician (mordantly subtitled The Meaning, if any, of Life), but Ballard’s condition casts doubt on whether he’ll have the strength—or time—to midwife the manuscript through the publishing process.


Alabama Song


Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: Samm Bennett. All rights reserved.

Roomful of Ghosts, the new release from Samm Bennett, is pure awesome, a sob and a chuckle and a whoop and a yowl, dredged up dripping from the mucky riverbottom of his bi-cultural bad self. (“Bi-cultural” because Bennett, an ubiquitous presence on the New York downtown music scene of the ’80s, was born in Alabama, studied African percussion in Nigeria, and lives in Tokyo.)

now the mayor tried to shoot me
and the governor called me dumb
but the president gave me a banjo string
and a piece of chewing gum

how do i love thee baby
i’d like to count the ways
but all the reasons they keep going
in and out of phase


Unpacking My Library


A while ago, the technoculture writer David Pescovitz—whose mind was probably elsewhere at the time—rashly asked me for a reading list. He was curious to know what was on my nightstand. (He’ll rue the day he asked, before I’m done.) Typically, I have a half-dozen books I’m picking up and putting down, in my desultory way, reading a few pages here, skimming a chapter there. The presumption, at least subconsciously, is that this hodgepodge will form a sort of montage in my mind, inspiring intertextual conjunctions, juxtapositions, synchronicities. (At least, that’s the theory…) Literary ADD meets Freudian free association.


Axles of Evil


Courtesy Propaganda Remix Project; all rights reserved..

What with pound-of-flesh gas prices; Bush’s tax incentive to stimulate SUV sales, unbelievably; an anti-terrorist driving school offering tips on high-impact ramming techniques and high-speed evasive maneuvers for dealing with death-racing terrorists (or just garden-variety road ragers); and the cheese monkeys’ recent eco-vigilantism against our gas-slurping behemoths, my 2004 essay on the relationship between America’s love affair with monster cars and its oil-dependent foreign policy seems more relevant than ever…


Dismemberment of Things Past

Stuck on fast forward, we’ve accelerated to the point where our multitasking, instant-messaging speed tribes are experiencing an eerie nostalgia for the present—an ironic world-view in which every experience is framed in air quotes.


Still from Decasia: The State of Decay (Bill Morrison, 2002). Courtesy Decasia website.