The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink

Mark Dery, Author Grove/Atlantic $25 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1640-6
Centering his critique of the contemporary pop cultural landscape around the title image, borrowed from a sobriquet once applied to Coney Island, Dery sees ""a giddy whirl of euphoric horror where cartoon and nightmare melt into one."" He can be an astute observer of trends, adept at connecting seemingly disparate phenomena. The best essays here focus on our obsessions with conspiracy and paranoia, the new grotesque aesthetic in the arts and the changing dynamics of technophilia and technophobia in the new computer age. Unfortunately, the book is padded with writing on minor topics. Dery shifts focus rather too quickly--one has the sense that he is throwing ideas at a wall ostensibly to see what sticks, but really hoping to distract attention from the results through the speed of his performance. And, too often, he filters his subject matter through suppositions plucked from high theory without examining the ideas he's borrowing, perhaps least successfully in his deployment of Georges Bataille to unravel the cultural import of Jim Carrey. Some inconsistencies stick out: at one point, he characterizes deconstruction as a ""vogue,"" barely above the level of a conspiracy theory; at another, he concludes his analysis of freaks as culturally ""other"" with one of the hoariest of deconstructionist chestnuts, the condemnation of binary oppositions. Such jargon limits his writing, and makes the book feel dated, as his reliance on interpretive strategies left over from the '70s (particularly from French thought: Kristeva's abject, Baudrillard's postmodern, Deleuze and Guattari's schizophrenic) is stale even by the standards of academe. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/01/1999
Release date: 02/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-8021-3670-1
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