Review (Guest): I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

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Mark Dery

Bad Thoughts, Great Book March 27, 2012

By Supervert<

I find it impossible to discuss Mark Dery’s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts in anything other than the first person. The book speaks so eloquently of its time that, uncannily, I can’t help but feel it speaks of me. So many of my own interests and obsessions rise from its pages — death, deviance, intellect. I recognize my iTunes library in Dery’s tours de force on David Bowie and Lady Gaga. I recognize my bookshelf in Dery’s essay on Amok Books, whose productions were once textbooks in the éducation sentimentale of the counterculture. I recognize my own rhetorical strategies in the move Dery makes in “Toe Fou,” updating George Bataille’s meditation on the big toe by riffing on a picture of Madonna’s bare feet. Weirdest of all, I recognize what I thought was my own obscure fondness for “invisible literature” in Dery’s essay on the New York Academy of Medicine Library — a place I too have plundered in quiet hours of mad and horrible research. Was I sitting across the table from you, Mark? I feel as though you, like Baudelaire, have addressed your book to “mon semblable, mon frère.”

How is it that Dery is able to produce this uncanny feeling of identification? You get the sense that, while the rest of us were living the zeitgeist, Dery was holding a stethoscope to its heart. His essays are EKGs showing that our pulse goes haywire in the presence of extremes — perversion, violence, satanism. In an introduction, Dery declares that it is “the writer’s job” to “think bad thoughts”: “to wander footloose through the mind’s labyrinth, following the thread of any idea that reels you in, no matter how arcane or depraved, obscene or blasphemous, untouchably controversial, irreducibly complex, or preposterous on its face.” All of us take in these abominations as they play across our flatscreens and iPhones, but Dery’s distinction is to really think about them — reflect on them, contextualize them, pursue their logic to sometimes unpalatable consequences. “The writer’s job,” he means to say, “is to transform ‘bad thoughts’ into good ones — insights and observations — through a process of examination.” Will this thankless job now compel Dery to go in search of even worse thoughts? Perhaps the worst of all lies in the realization that there are so many bad thoughts, an inexhaustible supply, yet to be confronted.

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Flagged by Jon Lebkowsky in Mark Dery dances the apocalypso

I’m leading a two-week asynchronous discussion with erudite author and culture critic Mark Dery, whose provocative essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts has been turning my head on its axle. At the moment, we’re discussing apocalypse:

I *do* think we live in times of chaos and complexity, when society is “far from equilibrium,” as
scientists who study dynamical systems like to say. Steven Pinker’s claim, in _The Better Angels of Our Nature_, that violence is on the decline notwithstanding, most peoples’ experience of the wider world—which is to say, as a funhouse-mirror reflection in the media—seems to be as a growingly out-of-control place. Ideological extremism and lockstep partisanship are monkeywrenching the American political system—an article by Ezra Klein in the March 19 _New Yorker_ notes that ideological “rigidity has made American democracy much more difficult to manage”; the culture wars are reaching a boiling point, ginned up by backroom dealmakers like the Koch brothers, whose real agenda is simply to create the most deregulated, tax-free landscape in which to Do the Lord’s Work; and Angry White Guys are stockpiling guns and training their crosshairs on scapegoats, post-traumatically stressed by a black man in the Oval Office, the demographic rise of the nonwhite population, the sea change in households where women earn more than men, and the econopocalypse.

But if you’re shopping for apocalypses, the rough beast right around the bend is Envirogeddon. Come of the middle of the 21st century, we—at least, those of us who can’t afford a climate-controlled biosphere lush with hydroponic greenery and an artesian well guarded by a private army—are going to be living in one of Ballard’s disaster novels. Global Weirding, as climate scientists call it, is *the* pressing issue of the near future, and I have every confidence my friends on the right will bury their heads in the sand, on that issue, until the sand superheats and turns to glass.

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