18 March 2008

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium

Pyrotechnic Insanitarium was the term used by a contemporary writer to describe Coney Island in its heyday at the turn of the 20th Century. I think I would quite enjoy a book about Coney Island's history. Pity this wasn't it.

Mark Dery wrote The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink way back in 1999. It shows. It's been a very long nine years. And this is a pretty long review so I'll put it after the jump.

Leaving aside the problem that an unemployed person probably shouldn't read a book like this anyway--it's fairly depressing--I didn't bother finishing it for other reasons. From page one you know you're going to be reading things that may not apply any more. The before/after of 9/11 is a pretty severe contrast, and attempts to deconstruct American culture on the eve of the new millenium--and there were many--couldn't have predicted 9/11 or the turn said culture would take. Couldn't have predicted George Bush, either, who, like it or not, has defined this decade in ways historians will still be discussing a hundred years from now. And anyway, as Dery helpfully points out, the turn of the year 2000 had no special meaning whatsoever apart from what had been imbued to it by the culture: 2000 was itself a cultural creation, and had it merely been the turn from 1994 to 1995 all the cultural oddities and excesses Dery writes about would have been... well, they still would have been around. End-of-the-millenium angst was all well and good (Y2K anyone?) but most of the cultural issues Dery deals with were in the air already and only the notion that "surely, something big is going to happen" made any of it seem like it was a sign of the end times.

The fact is the 20th Century may have lasted from about 1918 until 1990, by some estimates, or it may have run until 2001. Perhaps the years from the fall of the Soviet Union to the attack on the World Trade Center were simply an interlude, history and humanity deciding whether we were going to go back and relive the violence and decadence of the 20th Century again or find something else to do. (Unfortunately I think we've decided to relive the 20th.) In any event, the constant reference to "fin-de-millenium" (Dery's terminology) makes the book feel older than it should--especially considering that, just as the cultural issues Dery discusses were extant before the 1998-1999 oh-my-god-here-comes-the-millenium era, they are still out there today.

Unfortunately the issues Dery chooses to discuss are not altogether nice. There are chapters about artists who use sheep entrails to make... not much, really, and about a photographic study of an exibition of Peter the Great's collection of freaks and mutants in formaldehyde. Things that are, in essence, gross, and I for one don't feel like reading about gross for the sake of gross. So, it's gross. So, there are gross things in life. It's one thing for an artist to make a statement that ignoring gross things or pretending they don't exist is immature, that's valid cultural criticism. It's something else to force gross down my throat because you think I'm immature. Fuck you.

Ultimately though it's not the nature of subject matter that drags the book down, since some people find such topics highly entertaining, if not arousing (I think I know some people like that. Not that I know them well, nor do I want to). There are other problems.

Dery's focus is relentlessly negative. Now, I didn't finish the book. I didn't even get halfway through, and I wasn't finished with the second section (out of 16) before I was skimming. It's possible that, in the later sections--well, in the 16th section anyway--Dery turns it all around and instead of just piling criticism atop depression ad infinitum he find something redeeming, some reassurance about the future of our society. But the fact that he labelled the conclusion "Last Things" and not "Last Words" leads me to believe the final rapier thrust in this one-sided fencing match is just like all the rest: straight to the undefended heart.

Let's be honest for a moment, shall we? Skewering American culture and society is easy. I do it. You do it. We all do it. The society we live in is the most individualistic on Earth, in history, and the fact that there is so much low-brow, so much stupidity, so many mass movements in one direction or another, so much low-grade shouting being passed off as debate, is a consequence of that. As an occasionally self-proclaimed libertarian I must accept that. But as much as I adore liberty, it results in a culture that is dominated by the lowest elements--and too much liberty scares people and makes them follow the crowd. Picking on our society does not require a 270 page book, and frankly the book just doesn't stay interesting. I may not have known about Renee French's Kinderculture series of skin-crawlingly creepy childhood cartoons, but I'm hardly surprised to find that they exist and, frankly, my life is not any richer for the knowledge. I don't need proof that most people are sickos. I suspect it anyway.

I read through to the fourth section, which was about the psycho-killer clown phenomenon. This interests me a great deal, as I have long found clowns to be mildly creepy. Not scary, but a little... je ne sais quoi. I do not like clowns for the most part, though I recognize that clowning has a long history and that our conception of them as scary pedophiles is a fairly recent invention. Clown antics, clowning around, those things are great. It's the dress-up part of clowns that is disturbing, more than anything, the idea of subjugating your whole self to another persona, a persona you yourself have created, one with no "character" or backstory per se but which relies entirely on the physical concealment of the self. A clown is a clown is a clown, after all. There's nothing creepy about acting, but clowning is not acting. Clowning is the elimination of the self: literally, in self, as it requires concealing the self solely for the purpose of being made ridiculous in the eyes of others. I just don't get it.

The chapter on scary clowns is... well, a little scarier than I want clowns to be. Dery draws heavily on the story of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who dressed up like a clown to lure young men into his home so he could kill them. Nice, right? But Gacy's murders took place in the 1970s and while certainly Gacy is guilty of creating a lot of the suspicion of clowns, I think Dery spends too much time talking about him. As it is, though, Dery makes a good point in his discussion that our mass distrust of clowns and people who would dress up like clowns has morphed over time into a general distrust of almost anyone who makes a living working with children. I suppose it's only a matter of time before parents start distrusting teachers simply because teachers want to work with children. Perhaps this is how the society in Children of Men came to be.

And the good point Dery makes is a problem, too. He makes some good points. He talks about the dumbing-down of culture and to what degree it is a real phenomenon (yes and no; there have always been plenty of people to partake in low-brow culture and there have always been performers willing to make jokes about shit, farts, and dicks. The difference is now it's much more widespread because broadcast media finds it more profitable to appeal to the lowest common denominator--after all, even the most hoity-toity highbrow cultural critic will find a few chuckles in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but try getting your average joe with the emotional maturity of an 8th grader excited about Verdi's Aida, for example. He talks about how Edvard Munch's The Scream was taken in its day and how the image has been appropriated here a century later. Very interesting stuff.

Unfortunately, Dery's writing gets tiresome very quickly. He references every obscure philosopher and writer he can think of, and though he provides copious endnotes so we can read more about these depressing topics ourselves if we should for some reason want to, frankly he attempts to marry low-brow topics with high-brow writing and it just comes off weird. And annoying. It's as if Dery knows he's taking aim at such a large target that there's no reason anyone should take him seriously (a competent 8-year-old could critique American society), so he inflates his writing in the worst academic style so he can be taken seriously.

In short, even if it was late 1999 and I was specifically looking for a book about current cultural phenomena of a depressing and/or disgusting nature, I probably wouldn't have been too excited by this one.

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