Is Alienation Necessary for Creativity?

Punk Rock, Violence, Despair, and Transformation (Part III)

Originally published in Mental Contagion

Joy Division’s first album, “Unknown Pleasures,” was not printed with an “A” and a “B” side, but rather with an “Inside” and an “Outside.”

Am I outside looking in, or inside looking out?

I stand outside looking in and I wonder…how did I get here? Was it by choice? The door opens and I turn my back on the smiling, happy faces. The door slams shut. I am still on the outside, looking in. How did I get here? Is this really where I want to be?

I think back…I got here because I never felt comfortable on the inside…because (maybe these are just excuses, maybe these are effects, rather than causes) I was too quiet, I thought too much, I was too self-conscious, too “weird.” I felt rejected by the inside and yet I still wanted to belong there. I remember 8th grade…I remember being shocked and hurt to find out that the girl that I liked thought I was “weird.” And how is it now that I would consider this a compliment?

Is choosing the outside just a reaction formation (psychoanalytic term: a “common defense…characterized by warding off an unacceptable wish or impulse by adopting a character trait that is diametrically opposed to it,” Gabbard, Psychodynamic Psychiatry in Clinical Practice). Is punk rock just a way of rejecting the inside and creating a new way/ve, that forms a new inside in the outside (a sense of belonging amongst those who do not belong)? Is this “music by and for outcasts,” (Jon Savage commenting on the Adverts in his book, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, 296). And is there not the risk of this new inside becoming like the old inside? Hence the arguments of “sell out,” “mellow out,” and the counterargument of it is “better to burn out than to fade away.”

“Frustration Is One of the Greatest Things in Art: Satisfaction is Nothing,”
(Malcolm McLaren’s college notes, winter 1967/8, in Savage, 9).

Anarchism: “a system of social thought, aiming at fundamental changes in the structure of society and particularly the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals,” George Woodcock, Anarchism, cited in Savage, 27-8).

McLaren argues that the artist must be outside, frustrated, dissatisfied, in a word, outside. And what does one want if dissatisfied: change, which has two (at least two) aspects: destruction and creation. Dissatisfied with a social system in which one feels marginalized and alienated, one can strike out in anger, and perhaps then try to replace the old with the new. There is this possibility in the destructive: finding idealism, of stumbling on to a transformative idea, that maybe can be used to create a new inside, or perhaps to transform the inside that just extruded/was rejected by you. In fact, it seems to be common that the most negationistic or nihilistic individuals were once the staunchest believers, and that their angry energy and thirst for destruction/transformation comes out of frustrated idealism. As a “post-punk” Lydon chanted: “anger is an energy” (“Rise,” from “Album,” 1985). I should have commented on this earlier, I am more of synthetic, rather than divisionist thinker. I do not see much point to the distinctions between art movements, whether it is “punk,” or “post-punk,” or “new wave,” these are arbitrary divisions that critics came up with to divide and understand and market the world more easily. It may be puzzling that I seem to lump Joy Division in with the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock. I am using the term “punk” in a broad way to include music (or art) that pursues extremity, rather than in a strict, historical sense of a certain period in the 1970s in New York or London. I thus consider the intense despair of Joy Division as one form of punk music, just as the chaos and disorder of the Sex Pistols is another way to pursue of extremity. All these divisions are more of a mental construction rather than inherent in the music. For instance, it is fair to consider Warsaw a punk band, but what about when the same band became known as Joy Division and put out “Unknown Pleasures?” Were they punk and then post-punk? Inside and then outside, or vice versa? When did they change from one to the other? When did the Clash stop being a punk band, were they ever? So, for purposes of this column, I will use the term “punk” to represent a dangerous voice from outside that pursues extremity and/or promises radical change, such as a transformation of society, say through anarchism.

Anarchism was an oft touted phrase for the punks, tear down the old, get rid of all the social structures which come between human being and human being, that come between a person and themselves, and replace it with a utopian vision. Various punk bands focused on one, the other, or both of these elements of change: the Pistols were primarily negationists; the Clash were more idealistic and utopian; Crass and Flux of Pink Indians were very much into the utopian idea of anarchism and were very constructive; Joy Division were, like the Sex Pistols, negationists, yet turned inward to negate the self, rather than outward to negate the social. Thus, we have another conception of inside/outside: the internal mind of the individual/the interpersonal, political world. The anger from finding oneself outside of society can thus go in two (or more) directions: inside the individual or outside into the world. This recalls Freud’s discussion of melancholia in which “the shadow of the lost object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object,” (Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 1917). Hence the anger/frustration toward the lost object (or, as we hinted at above, paradise lost…frustrated idealism) turns inward, creating despair and self-loathing. The ego becomes the forsaken object. What was outside is now inside. So, there are three directions that the energy of anger can go: inside toward the self, outside toward the social world, or both inside/outside in a rejection of all existence as in nihilism.

“It was a desperate stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection: the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert”…[again, notice the reference to the mystical, the sacred, the quest – recall last the discussion of Bataille in last issue, particularly his concept of the “heterogeneous,” an “unknown and dangerous force…(taboo)” and yet, at the same time, including the sacred and the “different types of violent individual or at least those who refuse the rule (madmen, leaders, poets, etc.)”  The Bataille Reader, 127]…this refusal takes two forms, the “first was to throw all your rage outwards. The second was to write your own script of self-destruction,” (Charlotte Pressher, cited in Savage, 136).

I wanna be anarchy!  Get pissed!  Destroy!

The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the U.K.”

“I’m so messed up. Somebody gotta help me please; somebody gotta save my soul,” (Sid Vicious, Savage, 506).

Mother I tried, please believe me
I’m doing the best that I can
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through
I’m ashamed of the person I am

“Isolation,” (1980)

The Dangers of the Perverse-Modernist Itch

“We are psychiatrists; we are German; we have read Nietzsche; we know that to gaze too long at monsters is to risk becoming one – that is what we get paid for,” (Marcus, 226).

Obviously, there is some very real danger in finding oneself outside. Both Ian Curtis and Sid Vicious ended up dead by their own hand and they are only the tip of the punk rock iceberg of death, violence, and suicide. Add to this Darby Crash (the Germs), Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu), or, if you want to stretch the punk definition even further, even Jim Morrison and  Kurt Cobain. It should not be too surprising then if some critics only see the self-destructive element of punk music and miss the other elements, particularly the idealistic, utopian elements. For instance, it interesting to read Martha Bayles’ book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty & meaning in American Popular Music alongside Mikal Gilmore’s book, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll. They both are looking at the same phenomenon and draw opposite conclusions. Bayles’ book is a lament of the loss of the “sublime and the beautiful” (that is from Dostoevsky’s, Notes From Underground, p. 7,  which is what comes to mind as I read Bayles, these sentimental laments that remind me of the people in high school who used to come and say, “smile, it is not that bad!” Oh no, I would think, it is even worse.) in music. She appeals to principles of harmony and beauty and sees only ugliness and danger in punk. She sees punk as having shown, “precious little concern for what was supposed to be left standing in its wake. Destruction was the thrill, the messier the better, therefore the proper word is ‘nihilism,’” (Bayles, 307). And she asks, what “is the point of whipping up all this anger? (Bayles, 315). She attempts to subvert the argument of William S. Burroughs “when asked about his own proclivities for horrific imagery,” he remarked, “Look around. Just look around,” (Bayles, 316). She states that the “perverse-modernist itch to erase the line between art and life has taken a new twist: Because horror and evil exist in life, art has the right – indeed the obligation – to concentrate exclusively on them,” (Bayles, 316). Bayles’ argument seems to be that punk created as much or more negativity than it mirrored in society. If we again recall Bataille’s discussion of the “homogeneous” it appears to be similar to what Bayles is championing and what Dostoevsky puts in quotation marks, “the sublime and the beautiful.”

How is it that Bayles sees punk and even a lot of rock & roll in this light and Gilmore sees the same objective phenomenon and praises it? He writes that rock music (including punk): “articulated losses, angers and horrible (as in unattainable) hopes, and that it emboldened me in many, many dark hours. It also, as much as anything else in my life, defined my convictions and my experience of what it meant (and still means) to be an American, and it gave me a moral (and of course immoral) guidance that nothing else in my life ever matched, short of dreams of sheer generous love or of sheer ruthless rapacity and destruction,” (Gilmore, 1). Could the difference be explained by Bataille’s view of the interplay of the homogeneous and heterogeneous? Could it be the difference of whether one is on the inside looking out at the raging storm, the hungry wolves, the apocalypse or whether one is on the outside trying to break inside/destroy inside/transform inside, in which case one is embodying the energy of the storm, the wolves, the apocalypse, one is a raging fire that indiscriminately burns away the old and clears the way for the new (order) growth.

“’The kids want misery and death,’” snorts Lydon, ‘they want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of apathy,” (Savage, 122).

Punk magazine, “captured the attitude: people wanted to say something negative. I liked that time of decay. There was nihilism in the atmosphere, a longing to die. Part of the feeling of New York at that time was this longing for oblivion, that you were about to disintegrate…yet that was something almost mystically wonderful,” (Mary Harron, interviewer of the Ramones in Punk’s first issue, Savage, 133).

Suffering is the Sole Origin of Consciousness

“And what if it so happens that a man’s advantage sometimes not only may, but even must, consist exactly in his desiring under certain conditions what is harmful to himself and not what is advantageous,” (Dostoevsky, 19). And further, “Perhaps suffering is just as great an advantage to him as prosperity?….Whether it is good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant to smash things, too….And yet I am sure man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, after all, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,” (Dostoevsky, 31). Remember, Dostoevsky was writing this in 1864, while “his wife lay on her deathbed and he himself was in ill health,” (Ralph Matlaw’s introduction, viii), where is the “sublime and beautiful” in that? I am now thinking of Schacht’s Alienation (because Kaufmann’s introductory essay, which I am only now just reading, is so much more defined than the discussion of alienation that follows), and Hesse’s Steppenwolf, but I don’t think there is time for them in this issue, maybe next issue will be on alienation…

Trapped inside themselves, forced/choosing the outside of society, in a word: alienated. Can one be alienated from society and not alienated from oneself? This is an interesting question. Or, is alienation present at all levels: self, other, society, universe, etc.? A Taoist view of harmony would hold that harmony would only exist when it is found at all levels (in harmony with the Tao) – one could not be in harmony with the self and alienated from society. And yet, underlying this whole investigation is the observation that “good” things come from the outside (alienation). The outside has its dangers, but it also has its boons.

“The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case…and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C. G. Jung has called the archetypal images,” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, cited in Savage, 103). (More on Jung and punk in later issues, suffice it to say that the first archetype encountered is the “shadow” and that the archetypes are ambivalent  in that they can lead to destruction or transformation, i.e. they contain both the “sublime and the beautiful” as well as the “horror and evil”).

So, this first step outside is required of potential heroes, Native Americans on vision quests, Shaman’s succumbing to their sacred illness, Hesse’s wolf of the steppe, the artist, and the punk rock musician. Recall the earlier McLaren quote that the artist must leave satisfaction behind and enter frustration in order to create art.

All Art Begins With a Critique...of the Self

“All art begins with a critique…with a critique of the self, the self always reflecting society [thus intermingling inside and outside, ed.]. Our critique began, as all critique begins with doubt…Doubt became our life. Doubt and outrage. Our doubt was so deep, finally, that we asked ourselves: Can language express a doubt so deep?” (Huelsenbeck on dada, in Marcus, Lipstick Traces, 220).

To look at this in another way: to be outside is a wound, a state of partial victimhood, and partially self-inflicted. The wound is the traumatic separation from the womb, the breast, the family, the society, the universe, All That Is, and, ultimately, from oneself. This wound is our contemporary, American society which views the individual as a separate, bounded individual whose job is to accumulate goods and to accept the dictates of objective science and rationality (recall Bataille) which stress limits, boundaries, objectification, and dehumanization. Yet, this wound has always been present, even before our society, it just takes a different form now, it is caused by different weapons. (I have to be careful here, I know Kaufmann thinks I am on thin ice). This is what I was talking about years ago when I spoke into a tape recorder and said, “Rational Thought Is Dead,” and then re-wound it and played it back, repeatedly, at slow speed. Rational Thought had gone far enough, too far even, it had reached its apogee. The further development of imbalance can only lead to catastrophe – a fatal wounding. Thus, we are wounded in our very being, by our very being. Rationality and objectivity are not the cure for the wound, but rather, its cause. This wound corresponds to Bataille’s homogeneous – objectivity, dehumanization, reduction, compartmentalization. Does this mean that subjectivity, humanization, and irrationality are the cure of this wound? (The terminology seems to suggest it does, but I wouldn’t trust me on this.)  Do we need Nietzsche’s Dionysian, Bataille’s Heterogeneous, Grof’s Holotropic?

What can heal the wound in our being? But first what is this wound? Let’s go back to Dostoevsky for a moment…“to be hyperconscious is a disease, a real positive disease,” (p. 6). Or, to put it another way, self-consciousness is a disease. How does one cure this disease of self-consciousness – by becoming more self-conscious or less? Bayles argues that we have a “hole in our soul.” That I agree with, but the question is what to do about it? Is punk a symptom of the disease, an attempt at cure, or a little of both? Should we use allopathic medicine (the use of opposite medication effect, i.e. fighting fire with water) or homeopathic medicine (cure by the use of the same effect, i.e. fighting fire with fire)? Punk (and I use this term even more broadly) is the fever of society. It can be tempered with acetaminophen, but the infection may linger, untouched. Bayles wants a sanitized, “sublime and beautiful” culture (remember that the growth of mold or bacteria in a petri dish is also called a “culture”), yet is it possible to attain this if we are existentially wounded, if there is no balance between inside and outside? What if it is not so simple as choosing inside over outside, or good over evil? If there is a smoldering infection (which at the same time may be our life) in our being the wound may need debridement. Maybe we need to face the ugly pus of violence and disorder, maybe we need to go deeper into the darkness and despair, deeper into the wound and probe its boundaries – and not just heal it, not just hope it goes away because that is wishing yourself away. If this is an existential wound it is not possible to rid ourselves of it, but is there a way to accept it, to transform it, to give it a “sacred yes,” to say, this wound is the best thing that ever happened to me?

“It was awful, he thought, but so awful that it crashed through into the other side, into magnificence,” (Savage on McLaren listening to the New York Dolls first album, p. 62).

Yet There Are Many Kinds of Death

I do not want to just contradict Bayles and say that the heterogeneous is really the “sublime and the beautiful.” Far from it – it is a danger, a curse, a bolt of lightning from beyond. I’ve already mentioned some of its victims. It is quite literally playing with fire, handling poisonous snakes, people go mad, get killed, kill themselves. But let us not reject it as evil, either. The way of transformation is the way of risk. The way out is the way in. The forces of transformation are dangerously close to the forces of complete destruction. In “holotropic therapy dramatic results can be sometimes achieved within a few days or even hours…the depth and intensity of the experiences…often includes an encounter with death so convincing that it cannot be distinguished from actual biological emergency and vital threat, episodes of mental disorganization that feel like insanity, total loss of control lasting several minutes, episodes of extreme choking, or long periods of violent tremors, shaking, and flailing around,” (Grof, The Adventure of Self-Discovery, 256).

And she screamed out, kicking on her side and said 
I've lost control again 
And seized up on the floor - I thought she'd die - she said 
I've lost control [again] 
She's lost control again - she's lost control

 “She’s Lost Control”

“Yet there are many kind of death: Lydon began a systematic disordering of the senses…in favor of a more instinctive, unconscious approach,” (Savage, 127).

“’Our performances were about taboos,’ says Genesis P-Orridge of COUM [later of Psychic TV, ed.] …’ It was the reduction down to the critical moment between being dead and alive. Which is the one [sic.] only feels totally alive but also under threat. That is exactly in Punk at the beginning: the same edge,” (Savage, 250).

“The desire begins with a demand to live not as an object but as a subject of history…The music came forth as a no that became a yes, then a no again, the again a yes: nothing is true except our conviction that the world we are asked to accept is false,” (Marcus, 5-6).

So, was that the start of my punk career? Was that it? 8th grade, Tommy telling me that the girl I liked thought I was “weird.” And I thought, “fuck you!” Then I probably went home and cried and I all of sudden hated her and I hated myself for my weirdness and I hated society for being so extroverted and making me all weird and shy. And then I wrote down every swear word and insult I could think of, even a few in Spanish. Could that have been the moment when I stepped outside and became a punk?

No. I was never really that much of punk, anyway. I was more of a melancholy new-waver, listening to “Temptation” over and over again, and then maybe a little Echo and the Bunnymen or the Psychedelic Furs, and then when it got really bad, Joy Division. Actually, I was already weird from pretty early on and I even kind of enjoyed it back then. Like remember listening to the Clockwork Orange soundtrack or “Revolver” and totally getting into “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the hi-fi and running around like little maniacs? Or what about when mom brought the pony in the house, man, we had no hope of making it on the inside – not with an image of your mom leading a pony through the house. Maybe it is all her fault – isn’t it kind of weird how she like Ministry – I mean late (a mind is a terrible thing to taste) Ministry – because she likes the rhythm?

Maybe we didn’t know any better – that “normal,” inside people shunned novel, challenging things and that there was a group of counter-culture weirdoes out there that would save us from a lonely existence of watching from the outside with a mixture of bitterness, hatred, and envy….

“If you bring forth that which is within you,
then that which is within you
will be your salvation.
If you do not bring forth that which is within you,
Then that which is within you, 
Will destroy you.”

(from Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, cited in Levine’s Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma)

Can I really end at this point? Are there too many threads left dangling?

I guess my point is that there is an inside/outside for the individual and likewise for the society. There is a force (think of Bataille, Jung, Marcus, Taoism) that is activated and compensates for a one-sided attitude in the individual and in society. Also, the individual and society are in relationship, mutually interpenetrating, and they depend on each other, and to change one is to change the other. Lastly, punk is that which is within you and it can transform and even maybe destroy you, but it you don’t bring it forth, it will definitely destroy you. 

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz