From San Diego CityBEAT
Loving the Alien
Intro: Youth in the mongrel metropolis
by Kelly Davis
I’d been trying to get in touch with Mark Dery for a couple of days when I received a hastily written e-mail:
“On tour in SF/UCSB, jacking in from the AFROGEEKS conference. Back to you by Tuesday, but everything sounds jake. M. Dery.”
Dery, a journalism professor at NYU, is perhaps best known for his 1993 manifesto on what’s known as “culture jamming”—a phenomenon in which subversive lefties hijack ads and other media with the goal of revealing the visual and linguistic manipulation driving consumer culture.
In 1999, Grove Press published Dery’s book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink—the title appropriated from an old Coney Island nickname to describe turn-of-the-20th-century America. One reviewer called the book, “A hoot of a read, an eye-opener that pokes fun at both stuffed-shirt postmodern intellectualism and capitalist excess with glee.”
Dery is indeed a hoot, a brilliant guy with a firm grasp on cutting-edge pop culture but who, weighing in on where to meet for an interview a few months ago, inquired about finding one of those old-school San Diego joints with red leather chairs where you can get a good martini at noon (we settled on the Imperial House). Like the e-mail he sent me, with its 21st-century cyber-slang (“jacking in”) coexisting with a 1920s colloquialism, Dery’s life and work is informed by a keen interest in how the past leaves its mark on the present.
Born in Boston, Dery grew up in Chula Vista feeling very much the East Coast transplant—as he eloquently describes in the piece that follows here. Now a New Yorker, he refers to himself—slightly tongue-in-cheek—as a former Chula Vista “homeboy.”
The Chula Vista of Dery’s youth was primarily white, middle-class, infused with American Dream ideology. San Diego, however, was far less self-realized, a place where Dery’s Hilltop High School classmates rarely ventured. As soon as he was able, Dery took up summer work at Wahrenbrock’s bookstore in downtown San Diego, “which inspired a thrill of terror in all of the Malibu Barbies and Big Men on Campus at my high school,” he said.
Downtown San Diego at that time “was Gotham City…. It was the mongrel metropolis.” And he dug it.
Most recently, Dery’s been at work on a new book, Don Henley Must Die, which he describes as “a series of essays on the cultural psyche of Southern California, from its white suburban badlands to its increasingly Latino borderlands.” The essays—or at least the couple that I’ve been privy to—explore not only SoCal culture but also how one’s environment shapes one’s sense of self. Dery, as a teen, feeling very much the alien in his new surroundings, became a sci-fi fan, especially of Ray Bradbury, whose Martian Chronicles, Dery points out, is a metaphor for the geographical displacement felt by California transplants in the mid-20th century.
An “anti-memoir,” he calls his work-in-progress “1970s Southern California zeitgeist viewed through the prism of one man’s bleakly funny memories of that lost world.
“By excavating the pop-culture potsherds of Southern California in the ’70s,” he said, “I believe I can dig up clues about who we are in the anxious ’00s, how we got that way and where we’re going.”
The excerpt printed here, “Loving the Alien: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Become Californian” appears both in Don Henley Must Die (due out sometime next year) and in the anthology Sunshine/Noir. Also, check out Dery’s immensely entertaining blog at www.markdery.com.
Copyright © 2005 City Works Press. All rights reserved.