Is There an Inside/Outside?

Transformation and Punk Rock (Part IV)

Originally published in Mental Contagion 

Is the artist inside or outside of society? Does inspiration come from within or without? Does society change from the inside or from the outside? Is your True Self hidden inside or revealed though your outward actions? Is the True Self found or created? Is there even such a thing as a True Self and False Self - or is that distinction a mythology, a myth-perception?

There are many different ways to divide something into inside/outside. There is the inside/outside of the group and the inside/outside of the individual. I can feel a part of a group, and thus, be inside it - or, I can feel apart from the group, unrelated to it, and thus feel I am on the outside. I can focus on what goes on inside my head or inside my body, as thoughts or pain or illness, or I can focus outside my body, yet still, the outside is mediated by the sense organs - skin, eyes, ears, tongue, nose. Is there really an inside/outside? If the outside is mediated by the inside (senses), how do we know that the outside is not an epiphenomenon of the inside (recall the earlier issue on “The Matrix,” and Buddhist conceptions of outside reality as an illusion or production of the mind, or to put it another way: there is no outside). Or, some would argue that concepts of self, mind, unconscious are epiphenomena of external reality - they have no real existence and should be considered in behavioral, objective terms (Behavioral Psychology or Gilbert Ryle’s, Philosophy of Mind would argue: there is no inside).

Inside/Outside is always a distinction which is relative to something else, perhaps we should just consider it as we consider right/left, it changes depending on your frame of reference. There is no absolute left, nor absolute right (excluding politics - well, maybe not excluding politics) and maybe there is no pure inside, no pure outside. In this case, every outside has a little (potential) inside in it, and vice versa (if you go far enough to the right on the globe, you end up on the left. Imagine this thought experiment, you tell someone, “Stay on my right side.” They begin to move away from you on your right, until eventually they reach the opposite side of the globe, one step forward and they are on your left, one step back and they are on your right. It is that moment of shift that is of utmost interest. To return to inside/outside, this could be considered a pair of opposite terms which are intimately related, one cannot exist without the other Perhaps all opposites have some shadow component in common, a point where one can shift to the other as easily as taking one step forward or one step backward.

“[I]nner experience is the opposite of action. Nothing more,” (Bataille, The Bataille Reader (BR), 70).

And, again, to recall Bataille in the following quote, the opposites (in this case, attraction/repulsion) are intimately related, or to put it another way, there is an invisible, yet forceful connection between opposite states, perhaps conceivable as a 2-way energy gradient, or a two way street, if you go right, you can also go left.

“An object that is repugnant presents a force of repulsion more or less great. I will add that, following my hypothesis, it should also present a force of attraction; like the force of repulsion, its opposite, the force of attraction will be more or less great,” (BR, 254). [Recall Newton’s Third Law of Thermodynamics: for every action (force) there is an equal and opposite reaction]. Bataille views the opposites as particularly coinciding in the paradox of the sacred, “What is sacred undoubtedly corresponds to the object of horror...a fetid, sticky object without boundaries which teems with life and yet is the sign of death. It is nature at the point where its effervescence closely joins life and death, where it is death gorging life with decomposed substance,” (BR, 253). [Please remember that Bataille speaks of a “non-religious” sacred].

We could perhaps say that the sacred is that place where the opposites break down, intermingle, and become without boundaries (no inside/outside). It is this still-point where one is neither to the right or to the left, neither inside, nor outside, yet this point contains the possibilities of both right/left, inside/outside. 


Last month’s issue introduced some discussion of inside/outside, along with the concept of alienation - which could be taken to mean a feeling of being trapped (either in or out) and one wants to get to the other state (“Let me in!” “Let me out!”). The opposite of alienation could be considered, belonging, being at peace, a state of contentment with where one is. As I was writing last month’s column, I ran across a book that had been sitting, unread, on my book shelf for a number of years: Alienation, by University of Illinois Professor Richard Schacht, with an introduction by Walter Kaufmann. The book is a discussion and critique of various writers use of the term and concept, “alienation.” Schacht comments that the term is often used polemically by writers to denote dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, or that things are not as they should be. Other writers view alienation as something positive, rather than negative. In his introductory essay, Kaufmann writes that alienation, “is neither a disease nor a blessing but, for better or worse, a central feature of human existence,” (Schacht, xvii). Kaufmann (and Schacht) trace much of the current use of the term, alienation, to Erich Fromm, who largely drew from Marx’s early writings, in which the term is found. He quotes Fromm, “Marx’s philosophy, like much of existential thinking, represents a protest against man’s alienation, his loss of himself and his transformation into a thing; it is a movement against the dehumanization and automatization of man inherent in the development of Western industrialism,” (Schacht, xxii). One could argue that many strains of punk rock are also a protest and reaction to this perceived alienation and dehumanization.

In reading this introductory essay, I was struck by how much Fromm’s above statement underlies my own thinking and writing on: trauma as an objectification of the self; the effects of technology, science, and rationality in turning the individual into an object (the dominance of the outside over the inside); the dehumanizing elements in the process of medical education; and, closer to home, the story of punk rock (alienated kids take things into their own hands and pursue extremity, through protest, violence, despair, creativity, and loud noise). Likewise, this argument underlies a number of books relevant to this column: Buber’s I and Thou; Mander’s The Absence of the Sacred; Hammerschlag’s The Theft of the Spirit; and The Critical Art Ensembles, Flesh Machine. So, obviously, it gave me pause in reading Kaufmann’s critique of the oft heard statement, “Things have never been worse.”

“What we are witnessing is an understandable reaction against the blithe faith in progress that was fashionable in the nineteenth century. But the new anti-faith in the unique alienation of modern man is as unsound and unsophisticated as the old faith in progress. The notion that thing were never so good and are constantly getting better, and the notion that things were never so bad and are steadily getting worse, are entirely worthy of each other,” (Schacht, xlv).

Can so much of recent philosophy, cultural critique, and psychological theory be simply a reaction to the 19th Century’s view that the glass is half-full and now we see it as half-empty? Kaufmann has some other good points such as the necessity of “alienation” for the development of self-consciousness and intellectual learning. He states that even, “the best education must increase alienation. At every turn it shows us how what is familiar is not comprehended, and how what seemed clear is really quite strange,” (Schacht, xlviii). [Although the “worst” education does not have such an alienating, revolutionary effect, but can be seen as intellectual blinders to Truth/Reality, a reduction of the Unknown to the Known]. Another way of putting this is that one must be able to perceive an outside (world) in order to perceive an inside (self-consciousness), one cannot be perceived without the other as its shadow, and where is that edge where light separates into shadow? In his discussion of alienated artists, Kaufmann shows how productive alienation can be and how the truly original, creative person is by necessity alienated because to be original means to be unlike the surround. One last quote from Kaufmann which shows his balance and appreciation of the paradoxical nature of alienation: “The trouble is that one does not know in advance when estrangement will prove fruitful. Moreover, self-destruction and creativity are not mutually exclusive,” (Schacht, liii). (Please recall punk rock).

Self-Consciousness Roused to Revolt

Even prior to Marx (and a significant influence on him), Hegel’s philosophy frequently made use of the term, “alienation.” Schacht’s discussion actually differentiates two different usages of “alienation” in Hegel’s writing. Alienation1 is the individual’s sense of otherness from the “social substance” (outside). Alienation2 is a rejection of separation and a return to unity with the social substance. “Only as self-consciousness roused to revolt does it know its own shattered condition, and in knowing this it has ipso facto risen above that condition,” (Hegel, quoted in Schacht, 65). Schacht sums this up as, “he is discussing the emergence of the individual out of an unreflective unity with his society and culture, as a distinct and independent personality; and the subsequent establishment of a new and conscious unity, within which there is room for individuality,” (Schacht, 39). It should be remembered that Hegel’s project in his major work, Phenomenology of the Spirit, traces the emergence of increasingly self-conscious Spirit. (This sounds a lot like the half-full-and-rising philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as the new age tenet that we are experiencing an evolution of consciousness.)  What is interesting in Hegel is his reconciliation of opposites through dialectic, which could be conceptualized as an ever-rising spiral which progresses through unity Þ separation into opposites (alienation) Þ reunification Þ etc. [This is so similar to Jung’s conception of the process of individuation, although Jung’s  only comment on Hegel, in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is that his language was “arrogant as it was laborious; I regarded him with downright mistrust. He seemed to me like a man who was caged in the edifice of his own words and was pompously gesticulating in his prison,” (Jung, 69). One can only wonder if there is not some confusion of inside/outside here. Freud also disavowed influence from a philosopher who preceded many of his own insights, in his case, Nietzsche.]

Hegel’s conception is that Spirit, or unity, is the beginning and the end, like the Word. Thus, Schacht observes, “when the social substance is alienated1 from the individual, it is the individual’s own true self - objectified - that is alienated, from him...individual consciousness fails to recognize that [quoting Hegel] ‘what seems to happen outside it as an activity directed against it, is its own doing,’” (Schacht, 51). Or, to repeat, “Where such alienation1 exists, it may be overcome through the recognition that one has been conceiving and asserting one’s independence in a way that renders one dependent upon others; and through rejection of this way of conceiving and asserting it, in favor of a more genuinely independent one,” (Schacht, 65).

Mountains and Rivers

So, again, we come back to the question: what is the nature of inside/outside? And also, the question posed in the last issue: does alienation from society necessarily imply alienation from the self? Hegel solves this dilemma of opposites by viewing them as stages of a process, rather than absolute, distinct elements. I am reminded of the Zen parable in which prior to studying Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. After a prolonged study, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers no longer rivers. After further prolonged study, mountains are once again mountains and rivers are rivers. Bataille, also, allows the opposites to have creative discourse and interplay (in what recalls the yin-yang balance) through the shifting relationship between the homogenous (which consists of firm boundaries) and the heterogeneous (or sacred, without boundaries). Hesse, in Steppenwolf, takes this even further, in that the Steppenwolf’s “life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles,” (70).

In an attempt at a conclusion, let us examine another stage theory of transformation - Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey. This journey begins with separation from the world (a movement either inside, internal journey, or outside, external journey) into the supernatural realm; next occurs initiation, the battle with inner demons/outer dragons; and finally to return, a reincorporation into society, but now having a numinous, charged quality (carrying reality2  into reality1) which bestows boons on self and society, (summarized in Grof and Grof, The Stormy Search for the Self, 127). This parallels Gennep’s concept of “the rite of passage,” which entails the stages of separation, transition, and incorporation, (ibid., 122).

Here we have several systems of transformation which recall Hegel’s dialectical evolution of Spirit. We may ask - what is the transformative element in this process? We can recall Eliade’s “return to the origin,” which is purported to be healing/transformative. We can recall Bataille’s previously cited passage that implies that the sacred is that point where life and death intermingle without boundaries, or to recall earlier discussions of right becoming left, inside becoming outside. As Kaufmann wrote, creativity and self-destruction are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they may necessarily be linked. The immersion in unmediated, boundary-less lifedeath is the razor’s edge, when one returns to reality1, one may be vigorously alive or stone cold dead. Things can get better or worse (or both?) suddenly. The movement toward life is not a movement away from death and vice versa (like the movement to the right is not a movement away from the left).

Does this not sound so much like what I have already written in other columns, perhaps even too much so? What about Schacht and Kaufmann’s critique of things getting better/worse, alienation being bad/good? Can these criticisms be leveled at these various theories of evolution? We could criticize these systems to the extent that they are viewed as absolute progress toward the “sublime and beautiful.” Hegel can be criticized as complacently accepting the status quo (it must be so because it is a development of Spirit and it will progress to the promised land, Marx’s “dialectic of history”).

The Sphere of the Between

Let us explore one last question here, that of the cross-cultural concepts of “individualism” and “collectivism.” One way of formulating this dimension is that in individualistic cultures, it is individual that is the ultimate value (inside), and in collectivist cultures, it is the group that is the ultimate value (outside). Another way of putting it is that in an individualist culture, the inside is the individual, in the collectivist culture, the inside is the group. Thus, this may just be a different bias toward defining what is the basic unit of reference, the individual or the group. I would now like to reference Edward Sampson’s article, “Reinterpreting Individualism and Collectivism: Their Religious Roots and Monologic Versus Dialogic Person-Other Relationship,” (American Psychologist, December, 2000). Sampson attempts to find a third choice in the individual/group pair of opposites which we are often caught up in. He cites Buber: “What is peculiarly characteristic of the human world is above all that something takes place between one being and another...I call this sphere...the sphere of the between...It is a primal category of human reality,”(1429). (We are not venturing so far afield here, when we consider that Kaufmann translated Buber’s I and Thou). Sampson cites the rabbinic tradition as being, “fundamentally open-ended and [having] indeterminate discussion or debates. No finalized meaning or single authoritative interpretation was either possible or felt to be desirable,” (1429). In response to the monologicparadigm (the mistaken view that the only “alternative to an individualistic person-other relationship is the loss of the individual as such,” 1430), Sampson proposes the dialogicparadigm, in which “we can enter into relationship with [a] being that has been set at a distance from us and thereby has become an independent opposite,” (1430, quoting Friedman). Here we have yet another linkage between what appear to be opposites, there can be no relationship without two individuals, it is not a question of choosing either individual (inside) or group (outside), one implies the other and the triumph of one is the loss of both. Another way to consider this is the mutual dependence of “opposites,” inside and outside are not antagonistic, but rather define one another. The human tendency is to value one over the other, but this is as absurd as choosing right over left; West over East; North over South, etc...

The Razor’s Edge Between Inside/Outside

In summary, our tendency to divide the world into seemingly distinct categories of inside/outside, body/mind, self/other may be an artifact of our perspective, rather than an objective truth. Not only may these distinctions be artifacts, but they may necessarily imply one another, thus the choice of one over the other is absurd and only strengthens the un-chosen opposite. We have reviewed several different writers who conceptualize the opposites in a system of back and forth movement. Yet there is a split-second place or pivot where one opposite can transform into the other, at this still point, there is neither inside, nor outside, and yet the potential for either. It is this point that Bataille characterizes as the “sacred,” that Buber calls “the sphere of the between,” and that Eliade calls the “origin.” This is the point (origin) of the creative/destructive. This is the point that punk rock aspires to: life on the edge. Yet, as we all know, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say that the path to Salvation is hard,” (Katha-Upanishad). And if we fail to balance on the razor’s edge, it cuts neatly into two halves: burn out or fade away.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz