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Previously in American Graffiti:

"After the Fall" (January 21, 1999), by Sven Birkerts
George Trow's media archaeology unearths a hidden narrative at the heart of postwar American life.

"That's Entertainment" (December 2, 1998), by Sven Birkerts
Somehow, amid the celebration of Tom Wolfe's new novel, A Man in Full, there seems to have been a slight misunderstanding.

"Escape from Pleasantville!" (November 4, 1998), by Sven Birkerts
"Do the writers and concept people in Hollywood routinely take tea together, or are they all honing in separately on our most latent anxieties?"

"Symptoms of the Culture Wars" (September 2, 1998), by Scott Stossel
The much-publicized intellectual conflicts of the past decade may have lost their intensity, but they haven't lost their importance. A book like Marjorie Garber's latest reminds us why.

See the complete American Graffiti index.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

An Eruption of Freakery
Forget the mainstream. The clues to deciphering our contemporary culture may lie at its extremes

by Scott Stossel

April 22, 1999

As the millennium approaches it seems to be carrying along with it a host of disturbing social indicators. Declining voter turnout. Decaying levels of trust in government, in institutions, in other people. A widening gap between rich and poor, at national and individual levels. An epidemic rise in the number of the clinically depressed. A much-hyped swelling of millennial anxiety, as myriad related fears -- about Y2K, apocalyptic biblical prophecies, proliferating cults and militia groups, metastasizing religious and ethnic conflicts -- intensify.

The worst (because most rational) fear is that these anxieties will become self-fulfilling. In a financial panic, anxieties about a bank's solvency cause people to withdraw their money, which in turn causes the bank's insolvency. In the millennial version of this phenomenon, anxieties about social and technological instability lead to not just the withdrawing of money but also to disengagement from all social institutions and public life, and to the stockpiling of weapons. It's the panicked withdrawal of social credit to the point of anarchic collapse. Some commentators speculate that the elements are indeed in place for some kind of apocalyptic cultural meltdown.

One such commentator is Mark Dery, a critic who writes regularly about the social and cultural fringes. In his new book, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, Dery asserts that "fin-de-millennium America is an infernal carnival," an increasingly black comedy that threatens to spin out of control.

Dery writes densely allusive but lively prose, mining Julia Kristeva and Entertainment Weekly with equal verve. But The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is not for the squeamish; it is a catalogue of the grotesque. Photographs of perverted clowns (penises erect), serial killers, raw meat, eviscerated corpses, tumors in jars, dead babies, distorted body parts, and all manner of freaks stare up disturbingly from its pages. Sometimes it seems that whenever Dery finds his argument flagging he pulls a Stephen King and goes for the gross-out.

But this is a provocative work of cultural criticism and a useful touchstone for considering two related questions: Is our culture in fact getting more outré? If so, what does that mean? Dery himself phrases the questions this way: "Are we on the eve of a new age of unrest and unreason? Or are the visions of excess and premonitions of doom haunting millennial America mere numerology -- the same mass manias that have bedeviled the Western world every thousand years?"

Dery does not sustain a consistent argument throughout the book -- in fact, he's maddeningly inconsistent -- but I'd say it's a fair bet that he's getting ready to lay in the millennial supplies. (You know: canned goods, a power generator, maybe a shotgun.) Everywhere he turns he sees evidence of "chaos," "disruption," "upheaval," "crisis," and "horror." Despite his concession that "the belief that we are history's witnesses to extremes of social fragmentation and moral malaise ... is part and parcel of [every] fin-de-siecle," Dery clearly believes that modern culture is freaking out.

As evidence that the millennium is bearing witness to "an eruption of freakery," Dery lists:

extreme sports, extreme fighting, extreme weather, extreme science (pigs that produce human hemoglobin), extreme TV (World's Scariest Police Chases), extreme diseases (flesh-eating bacteria), extreme sex (the mainstreaming of S&M via Basic Instinct and bondage couture), extreme art (performance artist Bob Flanagan nailing his penis to a board), extreme toys (Postal, a thrill-kill videogame that enables kids to waste innocent bystanders as they beg for mercy), extreme beliefs ... extreme behavior (Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield's ear), and, most profoundly, economic extremes: the yawning gap between the economic elite and the overworked, overdrawn millions.
As the examples pile up (and this is only a fraction of the full litany of freakery in the book), Dery's case grows more convincing. But are things more extreme now than they were at the end of this past century, or at the end of the fourteenth -- or even, for that matter, during the first thirty years of this one? The fourteenth century, to take just one of these examples, was replete with not only its own version of extreme sports (jousting), extreme diseases (the Black Plague), extreme beliefs (the divine right of kings, witchcraft, dragons), and extreme behavior (self-flagellation, wild carnivals), but also with economic and social divisions far more extreme than our own (lords and vassals and serfs were all very clearly separated; no one moved from one caste to another).

Dery might be wrong in calling our time unprecedentedly extreme, but it hardly matters: his general proposition makes sense. The extremes of behavior evident in each of the above eras were, in retrospect, clearly indicative of cultures that were going off the rails, soon to be replaced by new ones. The cultural dissolution of the late middle ages made way, ultimately, for the Renaissance and the early modern era; the breakdown of nineteenth-century agrarian life made way, for better or for worse, for the arrival of modern industrial capitalism.

Might the cultural flare-ups on which Dery concentrates his attention -- The Jerry Springer Show, Cops, the proliferation of Eduard Munch's The Scream as a cultural icon, the ubiquity of plastic surgery, and our fetishization of the serial killer, for example, all of which are extreme in their way but common or popular enough to be considered full-blown phenomena -- in fact signal the coming of a radical transformation of our social life?

Maybe so, especially if these more out-there cultural profusions reflect a shifting center of gravity underneath. In Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, the Yale sociologist Joshua Gamson writes that the boundary between the normal and abnormal is tightly linked to the boundaries "between decent and vulgar, sacred and profane, healthy and unhealthy, and moral and immoral." When the boundary dividing the normal from the abnormal is continually shifting outward, to absorb the guests on Springer, freaks like Marilyn Manson (and the pseudo-Goths who follow him), and the spectacle of a President on trial for lying about adulterous oral sex, our very definitions of the healthful and the moral become destabilized. "We've forgotten that civilization depends on keeping some of this stuff under wraps," the cultural commissar William Bennett told Maureen Dowd in 1995, and in a way he's right. Even if the 1950s were repressive to minorities and stultifying to women, and even if beneath the white-picket fifties lurked a Blue Velvetish dark side, at least we knew -- or pretended to know -- where the mainstream cultural and moral centers were. When a culture starts a centrifugal degeneration like the one Dery argues we are experiencing now, is it even any longer meaningful to talk of a "center"?

To some extent Dery's conclusions about the centerlessness of our culture are a function of where he chooses to focus his attention: at the margins, on society's leprous parts. By extrapolating from the diseased or marginal, Dery may produce a different picture from the critic or the social scientist who homes in on the putative center, but it is my belief -- admittedly based as much on temperament as on logic -- that the sort of cultural criticism that Dery practices is the more penetrating tool for getting at the health or meaning of a society. Because while it may well be that we define ourselves as a society by what we consider "normal," establishing what is normal requires first establishing what is abnormal. Without definitions of psychopathologies there could be no meaningful definition of what it means to have a normal psychology. When we lose a sense of what's abormal, walls fall and paradigms shift.

Trey Parker, a co-creator of South Park, expresses this crudely when he says, in talking of his show's comic aesthetic, "As soon as we advance into beings evolved enough to speak freely about farts and barf and anuses, this stuff won't be funny anymore and we'll move on to higher-minded topics. Until then, we're just capitalizing on America's immaturity." This is Bill Bennett turned inside out: real civilization will not arrive until we let the stuff that we've been keeping under wraps out. In truth, Parker and Bennett are saying the same thing: our culture has become so outré that what's in and what's out are commingling. The margins and the center are indistinguishable. And this is radically changing our self-definition as a culture and a society.

Consider the Heaven's Gate cult: the serene, castrated, bald followers of Marshall Applewhite, who committed mass suicide in order to reunite with the Hale-Bopp comet as it passed overhead in early 1997. The commentary on Heaven's Gate, Dery writes, amounted to "cultural border patrol," in that the "gatekeepers of official reality have used the cult to spotlight the putative differences between the mainstream and the fringe, the sanctioned and the stigmatized." But is Heaven's Gate, Dery asks, so different from the mainstream Christianity -- an "archaic death cult revolving around sublimated cannibalism, vampirism, and human sacrifice" -- supported by 86 percent of Americans? Well, yes, in fact, for a number of reasons -- but we take Dery's point. Critics on the right, at any rate, who tend to be more sensitive to what they perceive as deteriorations or adverse changes in the order of things, by and large agree that culture is getting wilder and wilder. If conservatives like Bennett and Robert Bork -- along with a smattering of more-radical left-wing critics like Frederic Jameson and the French post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard -- are correct about this, then it will get harder and harder to define something outside the proverbial mainstream as being "not like us." And if we don't know what's not like us, then we don't know what we are.

Much conventional social-scientific inquiry is governed by the idea that if we can determine what is average, or "normal," in a culture, then we will have got at that culture's essence. Indeed, the ur-work of American sociology, Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown, published in 1929, conveys with its very name the notion of the average. But the statistical mean is often less telling than the statistical outlier; some of the most interesting social-scientific approaches are those that approach the center via the margins. Think of Claude Levi-Strauss's emphasis on what's taboo or liminal, on what a society doesn't allow or keeps to the edges, or of Sigmund Freud's emphasis on the repressed, on what's imprisoned beneath the normal.

For these plumbers of the subterranean -- let's call them cultural pathologists -- the data on the average family from Muncie, Indiana (the subject of Middletown) reveals less about late-twentieth-century American culture than the guests on The Jerry Springer Show; telephone calls by the Gallup Poll tell us far less about the way we live now than telephone calls to the Psychic Friends Network. I tend to think they're right. If nothing else, Mark Dery confirms once again what writers and thinkers as disparate as Nathanael West, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Sigmund Freud, and Oliver Sacks have already shown us: the best place to explore the human condition is at its outer margins, its pathological extremes.

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More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect. His article on television violence, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," appeared in the May, 1997, issue of The Atlantic. He contributes frequently to Atlantic Unbound.

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