PRINT Summer 2001

Mark Dery

All the Web’s a sideshow, where the peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see “HIGH QUALITY scans of real-life autopsies” at the hurl-inspiring, stripping anchor-bimbos at, and—seemingly everywhere—a postmodern Odditorium’s worth of alt.sexualities, from “sploshing” (women slathering themselves in yucky foods and fluids) to “crush fetishism” (an obsession with spike heels grinding vermin underfoot). In my dreams, the Web will never be entirely sanitized by self-appointed morality czars or, worse, monetized to death by dot-coms. With any luck, I’ll be able to realize my fantasy of curating a virtual wunderkammer in my retirement. I imagine myself a millennial upgrade of the gentleman scholar–cum–carnival showman in Charles Wilson Peale’s famous portrait of himself beckoning us into his cabinet of wonders, a genteel sanctum full of stuffed animals, artifacts, and other curiosa.
Happily, others are leading the way, through websites addressed, subtly or explicitly, to “worshippers of morbid nature”—a demographic first identified by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. In an 1845 essay, the physician exhorted his medical colleagues to visit an exhibition of paintings “representing a great variety of cases of surgical disease, principally tumors”—works that were, he said, not only “curious and instructive” from a clinical perspective but harbingers of a new aesthetic: “the pathological sublime.” Nearly a century and a half later, its seeds have found fertile soil in cyberspace, where a hundred night-blooming flowers await the Linnaeus of our most obscure desires.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic whose byline has appeared in Wired, Rolling Stone, Red Herring, Suck, Feed, Salon, and the New York Times Magazine. His latest book is The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink.