(Re)Currently Reading: Mark Dery’s ‘Escape Velocity, Cyberculture at the End of the Century’

I came to Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1996) quite late. My current project had already dealt with what Accelerationism was in the 90s and I was naïve enough to think that writing about the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit was context enough. That was until I accidentally stumbled across Dery’s work when attempting to find writing on post-humanism for my PhD proposal. I was drawn in by the title Escape Velocity, the reference to speed and, by association, acceleration—enough to get anyone hooked. In part my attraction was helped by a recommendation by J.G. Ballard:

ESCAPE VELOCITY is without doubt the best guide I have read to the new computer culture that will soon dominate our lives.

References to Ballard’s fiction are abundant in the text. Crash comes up several times; particularly when Dery is talking about the 90s trend and aesthetics of ‘Cybersex’, but also in his discussion of technology and social discipline in the work of artist D.A. Therrien and his collective Comfort/Control. Ballard aside, some of the best moments of Dery’s book are in his discussions of popular visual art and music. ‘Mark Pauline’s Heavy Metal Theatre of Cruelty’ makes an apt title for a discussion of a ‘tinkerer’s war’ taking place in the art of Pauline, Chico MacMurtrie, and Brett Goldstone. Pauline is notable for building war-machines out of abandoned parts and making performances out of either ramming them against each other, in destruction derbies, or letting them ‘consecrate themselves to the flames.’ Here Dery makes metaphor for the waste of military expenditure in the US Gulf War, while maintaining a critical eye on the machismo and futurist aspects of this artistic spectacle.

Dery dedicates a whole chapter to a discussion of Cyberpunk’s relationship to popular music too. He explores how cyberpunk music really finds its instantiation (and also partial demise) in rock. In this chapter he explores Billy Idol’s notoriously bad ‘Cyberpunk’, but also suggests a more authentic sound to the aesthetic movement being located in the music of Elliott Sharp and Nine Inch Nails. Dery’s music analysis is an amazing source of contextualisation to his prior reconceptualization of the notion that ‘the 90s is just the 60s upside down’; a statement originally made by actor-comedian Philip Proctor. This is Dery’s Launchpad. It allows him to smash open the notion of technological transcendence that dominated 90s discourse, and which still finds flecks of influence on parts of Silicon Valley today. For me, this is Escape Velocity’s boldest moment, although it is also open to Dery’s greatest oversight: the century didn’t end in 1996.