The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink

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Mark Dery, coiner of the term 'culture jammer,' and author of the 'culture jammer manifesto' gives an interesting interpretation of the apocalyptic chatter characterizing the American millennium.

Mark Dery

Reviewed by Molly Hankwitz

Thursday, June 3 1999, 4:38 PM


This is not an irrelevant book and there are irrelevant, undistinguished texts out there in millennium publishing. Mark Dery, coiner of the term 'culture jammer,' and author of the 'culture jammer manifesto' gives an interesting interpretation of the apocalyptic chatter characterizing the American millennium. He manages a huge quantity of material and untangles some of the most ridiculous and dramatic media-hype in which post-post modern American minds are mired.

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is a book about Western pop culture and Americans' contradictory relationship to it. And it's also a somewhat Eurocentric critique that can't see beyond itself. Yet Dery's positions are well argued, and he handles subject matter with sophistication. Readers will get off on the joyride as the white middle class nerve is touched. Dery has a vast knowledge of contemporary media and sharply contrasts it's messages with their prevailing counter-forces: economic stability, bourgeois life, the role of the family, globalism, social control, gender roles and the crises that these ideologies undergo. The book depicts an uncanny, unwholesome, neurotic world, full of theatrical despair compassionately upturned by the author who points his finger at the stasis in the heart of America's anxieties.

As Dery goes after his central thesis, he diagnoses symptoms of a "pervasive anxiety" deeply rooted in our history, where dualities such as stability and rootlessness, fear and safety, city and suburb, are continuously being played out. This creates a compelling case for his thesis that America is somehow on the brink, precariously poised between the real, the imagined, the hyperreal and out-and-out disaster. Taking us through dark horrors, examples of idealizations, redressings of childhood, garish fascinations with clowns, pedophiles, bodies, flesh, medical images, aliens, robots, outer space, invasions, terror, and ruthless killers such as the Unabomber and John Wayne Gacy, the author deconstructs this anxious space.

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is supposed to serve as a wannabe reality check, a glimpse into the adolescent psyche of a millennial culture. However it fails to deliver us beyond that because it never explores subjects which are so clearly a part of fin-de-siecle globalization. Furthermore, Dery overlooks the very boundary problems that are indigenous to such a milieu by avoiding utilizing already well-formed critiques of globalization such as Shoat and Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism. Dery also avoids talking about the forces that are fundamental to the production of the artistic and cultural artifacts that he bases his arguments on. Yet, I am not totally disparaging this work. It's creative. Dery facilitates the reading of a powerful mirage of images and sources from which to think. He raises questions about the pastiche engulfing our current state of mind, which is a sight better than not asking them at all. It's a good read.

New York: Grove Press, 1999 

Copyright © 1999 by Molly Hankwitz. All rights reserved.
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