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Mark Dery

Mark Dery is a cultural critic, freelance journalist, guest lecturer, sometime visiting professor, author of The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium; Escape Velocity; Flame Wars.

Original Ballantine book cover concept art for J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings on eBay

Tolkien, perhaps rightly in marketing terms, though with the insistent literalism that makes writers writers (which is to say: not artists), demanded, of Barbara Remington's cover art for Lord of the Rings, "What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a Lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with the pink bulbs?"

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Nerval's Lobster: Is walking a crustacean any more ridiculous than a dog?

Before Rimbaud, before the Surrealists, there was Nerval (1808 – 1855), living his life as if it were a lucid dream. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his mental skies flickered with the chain lightning of madness—bouts of insanity that condemned him to periodic stays in asylums and, ultimately, self-murder.

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The Kraken Awakes: What Architeuthis is Trying to Tell Us

Captured live on video in its deep-sea element, for the first time, the Kraken of tall tales and sea shanties—Architeuthis, the giant squid—is coming into sharp focus, a flesh-and-blood reality. But why now?

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A Season in Hell

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“From the “Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries” to the “Aphrodites of the Operating Theater,” cultural critic Mark Dery is never one to turn a blind eye at our own gross anatomy. In 2006 though, Mark couldn’t look away even if he wanted to. That year, the author of the new essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, spent his summer vacation at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center suffering through the poisonous cure of chemotherapy before punctuating his year with hours under the surgeon’s scalpel. Boing Boing is honored to publish for the first time Mark’s intense, moving, and deeply personal account of his Season In Hell.” — David Pescovitz

On the wall at the foot of my bed, a poster displays the Faces Pain Scale, a series of earless, genderless every men arranged, from right to left, in increasing degrees of agony.

“The faces show how much pain or discomfort someone is feeling,” the caption explains. “The face on the left shows no pain. Each face shows more and more pain and the last face shows the worst pain possible. Point to the face that shows how bad your pain is right NOW.” The blurb adds, helpfully, that your face need not resemble the cartoon visages in the Pain Scale.

It’s August 2011. I’m lying in a room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, waiting to undergo surgery for a small-bowel obstruction, an intestinal blockage resulting from postoperative adhesions caused by my 2008 surgery for my first small-bowel obstruction, itself the result of my 2006 surgery for a rare and virulent cancer. Abdominal surgery begets scar tissue. Which gives rise to adhesions. Which sometimes cause bowel obstructions. Which may necessitate surgery. Which begets more scar tissue, which…

Read Mark Dery’s “Season In Hell”

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Ghost Babies

The traffic in dead babies is booming: daguerreotypes of dead babies, ambrotypes of dead babies, tintypes of dead babies, cartes de visite of dead babies, cabinet cards of dead babies; dead babies from the Victorian era. When Karl Marx wrote of capitalism’s “naked self-interest,” he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, “You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death.”

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Facebook of the Dead

Read Facebook of the Dead, a Boing Boing special feature by Mark Dery.

Mark Dery: Post Mortem

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

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Worshippers of Morbid Anatomy: Just as I'm warming to my task, my time on the Boing Boing marquee is over. I'd hoped to squeeze in posts about the pornographic rapture of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (don't you love the sweetly sadistic smile playing at the corner of the cherub's lips as he hovers, poised to plunge the golden spear of holy desire into Theresa's "very entrails," leaving her "all on fire with a great love of God," moaning with the "surpassing... sweetness of this excessive pain"?) and about the hallucinogenically beautiful sculptures in the Borghese Gallery, carved from seemingly infinite varieties of marble: snow-white Carrara, perfect for modeling the soft swell of a breast, the curve of a flank, a chin-dimple; busts of cardinals made of pink marble mottled with white blobs, giving their heads the appearance of being sculpted out of, er, headcheese; marble the color of blood sausage, marble the color of raw salmon, marble green as mint jelly, purple as eggplant, marble flickering with blue and gray veins, Pentelic marble, Parian marble, and let's not forget Phrygian marble, a psychedelic rock that the Victorian writer Henry Hull described as "one of the most curious, as well as handsome varieties of marble with which I am acquainted," a mineral delirium of "banded layers of silicious limestone of various shades of green, verging on blue or gray, alternating with others of a pure white...contorted, waved, or foliated in a remarkable manner..."

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Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: La Specola Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

Specola Head "Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?," wonders one of the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. He speaks for Cronenberg, who took up the thread in an interview he and I conducted. "We have contests in which we decide who is the most beautiful woman in the world," said Cronenberg, "and yet, if you were to show the inside of that woman's body, you would have a lot of grossed-out people. Why is that? We should be able to have a World's Most Perfect Kidney contest, where women or men unzip to show their kidneys. We can't become integral creatures until we come to terms with our bodies and we haven't come remotely close to that. We're incredibly schizophrenic."

Cronenberg's visceral aesthetic is bodied forth (so to speak) in La Specola, an 18th century anatomical museum at the University of Florence. It's fitting that the name, from the Latin for mirror (the museum is housed in a former observatory), is close etymological kin to speculum, an instrument used, as every woman knows, to dilate the opening of a body cavity for examination. La Specola is home to a collection of visible women and men, medical teaching aids that comprise some of the finest examples of ceroplasty, the art of modeling anatomical specimens in wax.

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Smart Bombs: Mark Dery, Steven Pinker on the Nature-Nurture Wars and the Politics of IQ

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

 About Photographs Steven Pinker3 4X6 150Dpi In February, 2009, I approached Steven Pinker, a deep thinker about linguistics and cognitive science who fishes where the two streams flow together, with a request for an interview. I was on assignment for the cultural studies journal Cabinet, writing a personal essay that would intertwine my own fraught relationship to the notion of intelligence with a historically informed critique of the cultural politics of the IQ test, specifically the Stanford-Binet and its successor the Wechsler.

A professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University (until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT), Pinker has popularized his theories of language and cognition through articles in the popular press and via critically acclaimed books such as The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. The furthest thing from a vulgar Darwinian---he rejects the term "genetic determinism"as a social-constructionist slur---Pinker is nonetheless a vigorous opponent of what he contends is the ideologically inspired insistence (often from the academic left, he maintains, and typically from those in the humanities rather than the hard sciences) that we are exclusively products of cultural influences, rather than, as he puts it, "an evolutionarily shaped human nature."In his popular critique of this assumption, The Blank Slate, he takes up the sword for evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and cognitive science against social constructionism.

Exhaustively knowledgeable about the science of cognition, and a foeman who gives as good as he gets (if not better) in the nature-versus-nurture culture wars, Pinker seemed the perfect foil for some of my ideas about the IQ test. Thus, I was delighted when he agreed to an informal e-mail exchange that lasted through much of February and into early March. I was equally chagrined when I had to inform him that his thoughtfully considered, sharply argued quotes didn't make it into my published essay. Happily, my guestblogger stint offered the perfect solution: publish our spirited exchange as a Boing Boing exclusive. I owe Professor Pinker a debt of gratitude for allowing me to publish our interview on Boing Boing. I'm very much the beneficiary of his deeply insightful, eloquently argued ideas; the privilege of sharpening my ideas on the whetstone of his intellect is a rare one, and I'm delighted to share that opportunity with Boing Boing's readers...

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Dery: "Head Case" in Cabinet Magazine

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

As its name suggests, the Brooklyn-based quarterly magazine Cabinet is a wunderkammer between two covers, a Baedeker for psychogeographers, a random walk through the postmodern baroque.

Although many of its contributors are card-carrying members of the professoriat, a significant number are artists and some are "independent scholars," a discreet euphemism for defrocked academics; trust-fund autodidacts who've disappeared down the rabbit hole of their obscure obsessions; intellectual omnivores with a magpie's eye and a hummingbird's attention span who Want to Know Everything About Everything (a cardinal sin in an age of intellectual niche marketing).

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Abjection Sustained: Dery visits Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

Unloved, underfunded, and more or less untended, the Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria---"National Museum of Healthcare," in your correspondent's me-talk-pretty-someday Italian---is, like so many of Italy's obscure museological gems, a study in abjection.

The Museo is housed in a 17th-century building, in the middle of a complex that some claim constitutes the oldest hospital in Europe: the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, erected in around 1198 by Pope Innocenzo III on the site of the Borgo Sassia, a hotel-cum-hospital for pilgrims to the nearby Holy City. "Its historic memory as an institution, recorded on its walls in frescoes ranging from the 15th to the 18th century, goes back to the 13th," writes Milton Gendel in his article "Rome's Unknown Museum Of The Holy Ghost" (PDF). But "the history of the hospital and hospitality on the site is at least five hundred years older than that," he notes. "Nero's grandmother, Agrippina, owned a suburban villa here on the right bank of the Tiber, and it was on this land that her son Gaius, known as Caligula, built his circus. In Nero's reign, St. Peter was crucified head down in the middle of the race track, having been condemned for proselityzing the Christian religion, which was held to be an anti-state activity before the Emperor Constantine, three centuries later, was himself converted." (Somewhere, Sam Harris heaves a sigh of regret for All That Might Have Been...)

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Great Caesar's Ghost: Dery on Rome's Cemetery of the Capuchins

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

In the dream life of 18th and 19th Europe, Italy and the Gothic were conjoined twins.

The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764)---a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room---is set in Italy. In fact, the first edition purported to be a translation of a 16th-century manuscript by an Italian cleric named "Onuphrio Muralto," rediscovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England." Ann Radcliffe's hugely influential Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which provided seed DNA for all Gothic romances to come, takes place partly in Italy, in a gloomy medieval pile in the Apennines where Our Heroine is menaced by the sinister Count Montoni. (Radcliffe had used Italy as a backdrop before, in A Sicilian Romance (1790), and would again, in The Italian (1796), where a diabolical monk named Schedoni puts a twisted face on the terrors of the Inquisition.) To Northern Europeans, especially the English, Italy reeked of cultural atavism---the inbred depravity of a decaying aristocracy and the perversions of Papism (paganism in a reversed collar, as far as protestants were concerned).

It's as if the sheer antiquity of the place---all those Roman ruins, haunted by the godless shades of all those parricidal, pedophilic Caesars Gibbon described in such scandalous detail in the Decline and Fall (1776-1788)---deformed the Italian psyche, warping it under the accumulated weight of a thousand years of perversion and profanation, scheming and throat-slitting.

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Dery and Lecter do Italy

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

On a recent flight to Rome, I found my sleep-deprived thoughts turning to the question that has launched a thousand doctoral dissertations: Why is Hannibal Lecter an Italophile?

He wasn't always. When we first meet the debonair, serial-murdering doctor, in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, he's curled up with a copy of Alexandre Dumas's Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. We can see from the class signifiers he flashes---waspish wit, feline grace, courtly manners, and refined, Old Money tastes---that he's a highbrow degenerate (in the evolutionary, Max Nordau sense of the word), struck from the mythic mold that gave us real-life archetypes such as Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as their fictional kin (most notably, Count Dracula (with whom Lecter shares many supernatural traits). His unabashed Eurocentrism would gladden George Will's wizened heart, but he hasn't yet outed himself as a flaming Italophile.

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A Young Person's Guide to the Pathological Sublime

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

So, what is this thing, the Pathological Sublime? Many, if not most, Boing Boing readers who have done the grad-school death march will be familiar with the sublime, a durable philosophical meme that, arguably, dates back to the Greeks but is more typically associated, in academic circles, with Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The invaluable Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism helpfully defines the sublime as:

a sense of wonder or awe (colored by fear, according to English theorists), which is created by the experience of grandness or 'vastness'; and in some cases writing on the sublime comes close to being nothing more than a list of objects said to produce the effect in question: mountains, oceans, Milton, an angry deity, etc. At its most sophisticated, however, 18th-century reflection on the sublime shows a new interest in aesthetic psychology, with attention shifting away from the sublime object and onto the response of the reading or perceiving subject.

The Dictionary goes on to note that this tactical interest in the psychological reverberations of the sublime was in some ways a reaction against neo-classical virtues such as order, symmetry, and The Beautiful, with which it (the sublime) is often counterpoised.

(This cultural dynamic replayed itself in the postmodern era, when critics such as Jean-Francois Lyotard rebooted the sublime as a corrective to the instrumental rationalism of modernism. Personally, when I need to destabilize "repressive totalities," I reach for a Bombay martini, the reliable culprit behind many of "Poppy" Bush's snarling rants to the startled press corps on Air Force One, according to several Bush family bios.)

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Mark Dery: My Roman Holiday

Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

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When the American Academy in Rome appointed me a scholar in residence for two weeks this summer, an evil gleam kindled in my eye. I knew exactly what I wanted to do: worship Italian cooking in its birthplace like some foodie penitent, a gastro-fundamentalist version of those frighteningly devout pilgrims who earn plenary indulgences by ascending, on their knees, the steep marble stairs of the Piazza di Porta San Giovanni in Rome. (Pontius Pilate's staircase, allegedly, lugged all the way to from the Holy Land to the Holy City in the year 326. A wood casing protects the venerated steps; strategically cut openings reveal what are purported to be Christ's bloodstains. Believer beware...)

That was my first, albeit covert, order of business.

My Official Reason for Being in Italy was to research my book-in-progress, The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation of the paradox of awful beauty---beheld things whose retinal seductions are irresistible yet whose content is morally horrific, politically incorrect, or at the very least, viscerally repulsive. (About which, more shortly, in my next post.)

The second item on my hidden agenda was to convince the editors of Boing Boing to let me blog my Grand Tour, which I hoped would be of interest to like-minded Mutants. With the editors' blessing, I would chronicle my encounters with Wonderful Things&trade in a style that, in my dreams, crossed the scholarly fastidiousness of Charles Willson Peale with the deadpan urbanity Rod Serling, whose brand of suave always hit that sweet spot between Mad Men and the mortician's prep table.

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