Why Is Revolt Necessary?

Joy Division, Punk Rock, Violence, Despair and Transformation (Part II)

Originally published in Mental Contagion

Many students and theorists of humanity end up struggling with the conception of the interplay of opposing, irreconcilable forces (for instance, Freud’s life and death instincts). These students often end up with a respect for and acceptance of paradox, yet this can only be achieved through struggle, as it seems to be human nature to take the easy way of dichotomous thinking in which we value one side of the paradox and devalue (or even demonize) the other side. In reducing paradox to choice, we end up with a “this versus that” paradigm: life vs. death; good vs. evil; knowledge vs. ignorance; capitalism vs. socialism; productivity vs. unproductivity; Christian vs. pagan; republican vs. democrat; or order vs. chaos.

Transformation is the process of something changing into something else, sometimes this can be a bridge across paradox, for instance, something “good” comes out of something “bad.” The process of transformation is an amazing thing and something we know very little about. Various theorists have incorporated transformation into their theories of humanity, yet there is a danger of then viewing the paradox as only a dialectical vehicle toward a unitary concept (Jung: Individuation; Hegel: Spirit; Marx: Utopian (Communist) Society).

Joy Division, Punk Rock, Violence, Despair and Transformation (Part II)

The focus will be on the question: why did the cultural revolt (transformation) of punk take place? Was this revolt necessary? Can it be understood in a larger context of humanity? Two writers will primarily be considered in this section: Greil Marcus and Georges Bataille.


To begin with Marcus, the argument of his book, Lipstick Traces: A secret history of the twentieth century (1989), is that the Sex Pistols (punk rock) were one manifestation of a larger counter-cultural force. We could think of this as a counterforce (Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, pgs. 719-887) to the force of main stream society. Marcus traces this “secret history” back from the Sex Pistols to various 60s movements, Situationist International (1957) and Lettrist International (1952) (French cultural art movements), to the Surrealists (1920s), to Dada (1910s), and earlier to “the young Karl Marx, Saint-Just, various medieval heretics, and the knights of the round table,” (Marcus, 18). This is a pretty tall order to link these seemingly divergent movements, particularly in combining secular art/music movements with mysticism and heretics. However, if we try to imagine back into time how art/music were often vehicles for expressing elements from the spiritual domain (and perhaps, even developed out of a feeling of in-spiration from/by the Muses), we can see that the manipulation of symbols in art/music parallels the manipulation of symbols in spiritualism. One could even argue that in our secular society, art/music is the primary spiritual experience for the masses. How else can we explain the power of art to “move” (transform) the individual, and, thus, the culture? Marcus focuses primarily on movements in the 20th century, where the connection to the sacred or spiritual had already been attenuated by years of intellectualism, rationalism, science, and modernist disappointment in Christianity as a world view. In later editions of this column we will explore some of the earlier connections to the “heretics,” mystics and shamans (just briefly consider the use of music in trance induction and explosions of violence and sacrifice in “pagan” outbursts (festivals), such as those described of the indigenous Australian tribes in the last issue).

A reasonable question to ask Marcus is: is this secret history transmitted from person to person (such as the oral traditions in Native cultures), or is it something that people can spontaneously tap into? I think Marcus would reply that it is both. He traces Malcolm McLaren’s (the Sex Pistols’ manager) and Bernie Rhodes’ (the Clash’s manager) education and experience back to various influences from art school, the 60s, and counter-cultural social movements (providing the direct transmission route). However, Marcus also argues that young Johnny Rotten didn’t have much direct knowledge of these earlier theories, but tapped into something deep within himself which seemed to resonate with something deep within the youth of his era. Marcus invokes Jungian ideas of archetypes and the collective unconscious, and also Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We could extrapolate from Marcus and say that the reason people thought the Sex Pistols were important and inspiring (inspire: to “communicate by divine influence,” to “breathe life into”) was because they tapped into some transpersonal energy that was infectious/contagious (that is, triggered some form of sympathetic resonation in the audience/listener). “‘I saw the Sex Pistols,’ said Bernard Sumner of Joy Division...’They were terrible. I thought they were great. I wanted to get up and be terrible too,’” (Marcus, 7).

A Thinking That Does Not Fall Apart in the Face of Horror

So, what is the nature of this counterforce, this spring that nourishes Marcus’ secret history? To examine this question, we will turn to the writings of Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Bataille was a librarian of medieval studies, a seminary drop out (he said he quit when his religion made a woman he loved cry), an early Surrealist, a student of yoga and shamanism, a practitioner of “non-religious mysticism,” a co-editor of Contre Attaque (1935-6) with Andre Breton, the “head” of ancéphale (1936-39), the founder of the Collège de sociologie, the author of Inner Experience, On Nietzsche, Literature and Evil, “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” and “Sacrifice, the Festival and the Principles of the Sacred World,” (see the introduction of The Bataille Reader, (hereafter, BR) F. Botting and S. Wilson (eds.) 1997). Bataille struggled to develop a “thinking that does not fall apart in the face of horror, a self-consciousness that does not steal away when it is time to explore the possibility of the limit,” (The Accursed Share, vol. II, cited in BR, p. 236). He was a thinker who viewed the truth as something which could not be captured by knowledge and words, and thus accepted the paradox inherent in humanity. The importance of Bataille is that he was a student of extreme states (like violence and despair, like punk rock).

“That which is revolting, shocking, that which disarms predictable patterns of thinking and feeling, that which lies at the unhallowed extremes and unavowed interstices of social, philosophical or theoretical frameworks, are the objects of Bataille’s fascination. Encounters with horror, violent disgust, that miraculously transform into experiences of laughter, intoxication, ecstasy, constitute, for Bataille, inner experiences that overwhelm any sense of distinction between interiority and exteriority,” (BR, 2, emphasis mine).

I hope to find some friends to maybe lead astray
To wake this dormant sleep and tread on father’s grave

Joy Division, “Colony,” (1979)

Bataille focused on various, interrelated, opposing forces: knowledge/non-knowledge; homogeneity/heterogeneity; profane/sacred; continuity/discontinuity; accumulation/excretion; productive/non-productive expenditure; sovereignty/servility; and being human/being a thing. Unlike Jung, Marx, and Hegel, Bataille did not postulate a third term, or goal to which these forces proceeded toward, in a dialectical fashion. Rather, he seemed to view these forces as the paradoxical basis of human (which makes little distinction between individual/social). In a way analogous to Oriental philosophy (and Jungian thought, to some extent) he did seem to think that there could be a “better” or “worse” harmony or balance of these forces. If both forces are accepted and allowed their place, it could possibly de-escalate the power and severity with which the repressed (heterogeneous or sacred) force which periodically invades or expresses itself in homogeneous (rational, order-based) society. (This can be thought of in energetic terms, in that the greater the force applied to repress, the greater the pressure builds in the opposite direction. This is reminiscent of Newton’s third law of physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. While this is a well know principle of physics, it is not as readily apparent when applied to more subtle actions like thought. Bataille traced out this principle as it applied to realms of the sacred and heterogeneous. “What is sacred undoubtedly corresponds to the object of horror I have spoken of, 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...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,” (The Accursed Share, vol. II, (AS), cited in BR, 251-2). Bataille argued that a balance of heterogeneous/homogeneous could possibly be obtained through frequent festivals which could give the sacred expression, rather than having it burst out in larger scale, mass violence. (I may be extrapolating from Bataille somewhat with this thesis).


Bataille’s terms homogeneity/heterogeneity and knowledge/non-knowledge are of particular relevance to the current examination. The homogeneous force is one which leads to a “productive...useful society,” in which “every useless element is excluded,” (“The Psychological Structure of Fascism,” (PSF) in BR, 122). In homogeneous society, “human relations are sustained by a reduction to fixed rules based on the consciousness of the possible identity of delineable persons and situations, in principle, all violence is excluded from this course of existence,” (ibid., 122). The force of homogeneity can easily be seen in rationality and science: “the object of science is to establish the homogeneity of phenomenon,” (ibid. 126) and in capitalism: “each man is worth what he produces...he stops being an existence for itself; he is no more than a function, arranged within measurable limits,” (ibid. 123). This argument is reminiscent of the Critical Arts Ensemble’s, which seems to be influenced by Bataille, amongst others. “Under this new bio-regime, physical perfection will be defined by an individual’s ability to separate he/rself from non-rational motivation and emergent desires, thus increasing he/r potential devotion to the varieties of political-economic service to perpetuate the pancapitalist dynasty,” (Flesh Machine, 5).

An opposing (or complementary) force to homogeneity is the heterogeneous, which he Bataille considers to include, “the unconscious...the sacred [and] everything resulting from unproductiveexpenditure,” (PSF, BR, 126-7). The sacred, and likewise the heterogeneous, is “charged with an unknown and dangerous force...and a certain social prohibition of contact (taboo),” (ibid., 127). This conception of the sacred may seem somewhat foreign to the contemporary American. For instance, in Christianity the sacred has been sanitized, (d)evil has been split off from go(o)d, but if w-e look to the Old Testament, “pagan,” traditional, and native cultures, the sacred is an ambivalent force in which good and evil are intermixed. What is perceived is a powerful charge or force that is unstable and can bring about a rapid transformation toward “good,” “evil,” or a paradoxical mixture of both. Bataille writes that the heterogeneous (sacred), “consists of everything rejected by homogeneous society as waste or as superior transcendent value. Included are the waste products of the human body and certain analogous matter (trash, vermin, etc.); the parts of the body; persons, words, or acts having a suggestive erotic value; the various unconscious processes such as dreams or neuroses; the numerous elements or social forms that homogeneous society is powerless to assimilate: mobs, the warrior, aristocratic and impoverished classes, different types of violent individual or at least those who refuse the rule (madmen, leaders, poets, etc.),” (ibid., 127).

“Non-Knowledge Lays Bare” (Inner Experience, in BR, 82).

Another pair of related terms is knowledge/non-knowledge. For Bataille, knowledge is the product of project, it is a reduction to utility, order, expectation, and thus a force of homogeneity. Knowledge is a function of time and effort. He writes, “thought, subordinated to some anticipated result, completely enslaved, ceases to be in being sovereign, that only un-knowing is sovereign,” (The Accursed Share, vol. II, in BR, 308). (The sovereign is a term closely related to heterogeneity, it is a state of being that is not reduced to utility or external definition by others). While Bataille often seems hostile toward knowledge, it is perhaps to compensate for the over-value which he saw modern culture giving to knowledge and the devaluation of non-knowledge.

The counterforce of knowledge is non-knowledge...it is “inner experience,” extreme states, it is not a function of time and effort, but comes of its own accord (as a gift, a curse, an infection, an inspiration). Non-knowledge is similar to non-attachment, it is a break-down of the boundary between individual/other, individual/universe; it is transcendence and unity (as opposed to differentiation and objectification in knowledge).

“I resolved long ago not to seek knowledge, as others do, but to seek its contrary, which is unknowing. I no longer anticipated the moment when I would be rewarded for my effort, when I would know at last,but rather the moment when I would no longer know, when my initial anticipation would dissolve into NOTHING. This is perhaps a mysticism in the sense that my craving not to know one day ceased to be distinguishable from the experience that the monks called mystical - but I had neither a presupposition nor a god,” (ibid., 308).

You’ve been seeing things,
in darkness, not in learning

“No Love Lost,” (1977)

What did you see there?
I saw all knowledge destroyed

“Wilderness,” (1979)

Thus, the pursuit of non-knowledge leads away from the servility of the  homogeneous and toward the sovereign, sacred, heterogeneous realm where non-knowledge, rather than knowledge is the mode of perception. In Bataille’s view, the homogeneous force in society is reductive to utility, order, limitation of desires, and tries to moderate and/or exclude the heterogeneous (like Freud’s battle between the Super-ego and Id, and also life and death instincts). (Notice the similarity, also with Nietzsche’s forces of the Apollonian/Dionysian in art and culture). From the perspective of the homogeneous force, the heterogeneous is viewed as ugly, evil, bad, disruptive, chaotic, yet in a paradoxical way, also includes the opposite values of extreme beauty (do not look upon Diana in the nude), transcendence, and the breakdown of the isolated individual into a state of unification with the universe. In excluding the lowest, homogeneous society excludes the highest (remember the alchemical dictum, “as above, so below”). Thus, with the dominance of “Christian,” Pancapitalist values of “goodness,” productivity, utility, and the progress of sci/tech, we are separated from the repressed (dissociated) heterogeneous force.

For instance, consider books such as Hammerschlag’s The Theft of the Spirit, or Mander’s The Absence of the Sacred, which view contemporary society as being cut off from the life-giving spiritual force. (There is also the argument of the Religious Right, which calls out for a return to traditional, Christian values, but this could possibly be in the “sanitized” form of a religion of conformity and homogeneity, rather than an invitation for a “divine invasion” (P. K. Dick) into human life, which tends to upset, rather than support the existing social order, consider Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor). “A culture that reveres life maintains its myths and symbols; without them, we dehumanize the life we live. A culture that upholds material wealth and technology as its only sustaining values worships death and stagnation. A culture that allows...materialism and technology to determine its priorities devalues life and the spirit, and leaves no room for mystery, dreams, and growth...We must reinvest our ceremonies and symbols with life-giving, healthful meaning,” (Hammerschlag, 21-26). This calls to mind Bataille’s call for a return of more meaningful festivals in which the repressed can be expressed (perhaps a connection to the collective unconscious and the realm of symbol and archetype?). Also consider the arguments of Joseph Campbell, Jung, James Hillman, and Roberts Avens, for a re-mythologization of contemporary life. These arguments are very similar to Bataille’s, contemporary culture has cut itself off from, has lost connection with, something that is vital (that invigorates, inspires) human life, and without it, we are something less than human and we befoul our environment (that is, our own cages). Also in this group, we can consider the various books that delineate the “wound” of contemporary culture, such as Kirby Farrell’s  Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and interpretation in the nineties. This book examines the current motive to view ourselves as victims in regard to all manner of aggressor (including those systems we ourselves have created). It seems that everyone feels wounded, yet no one knows what really caused it and how to transform it. In a sense, we are overly focused on the wound itself, instead of that which can come after the wound, as occurred for the shaman who gained power and (non-)knowledge from the wound. I will note that there is the embryonic field of Posttraumatic Growth which is just starting to receive serious study.


Going back to Marcus’ secret history, we can view the counterforce which the Sex Pistols tapped into as being (from Bataille’s perspective) a manifestation of that which homogeneous society represses and dissociates, namely the revolt (return) of the heterogeneous in its various guises of non-knowledge, the sacred, and sovereignty. This force is ambivalent...”I saw the Sex Pistols...They were terrible. I thought they were great.” This revolt subverts the objectification and utilitarian view of the individual. The individual is infected with the vitality of the heterogeneous (and thus, contagious) and becomes sovereign, rather than servile. “Yesterday I thought I was a crud...Then I saw the Sex Pistols, and I became a king,” (Joe Strummer, Marcus, 37).

Again, going back to Marcus, we can say that whenever the homogeneous force of society becomes too stultifying, dehumanizing, so that the individual sees “no future,” we can expect an eruption of the repressed heterogeneous force. Thus, revolt is necessary as long as the homogenizing force of society is not balanced by the heterogeneous.

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz