October 08, 2009

"An abyss that laughs at creation"


A belated thanks to everyone who attended last week's Militant Dysphoria event at Goldsmiths. And special thanks to Dominic, Nathan, Nina, Nick, James and Alex whose thoughtful presentations did so much to stimulate the very lively discussion and to demonstrate the dark fecundity of the ideas in Cold World

There's an special urgency and poignancy about the concept of militant dysphoria just now, when dejection is so widespread amongst the young. The regime of anti-depressants, CBT and relentlessly upbeat pop culture enforce a compulsory positivity which treats the negative only as failure and pathology. Dejection is not an extreme state so much as a generational condition, as invisible as it is ubiquitous, sometimes treated as a medicalised disorder, sometimes condemned as a depoliticised apathy, often not acknowledged at all, but normalised as an existential horizon of lowered expectations and minimal hope. If, from the perspective of a vitalist commonsense, militancy and dysphoria is an impossible collocation, then the dejected young (and among them, all those who aestheticise their dysphoria, such as Goths and the devotees of Black Metal), must simply be abandoned as depoliticised, unpolitical or - at best - pre-political. But as Dominic put it in his own comments box recently, "Dysphoria is 'militant' when it refuses to be framed as a personal mishap, and instead poses itself as a question and a challenge to the society in which it occurs." And an important question Dominic's book poses is how to make politics answerable to the Cold World - how might the emotional hyper-literacy of communicative capitalism be subordinated to the affective dyslexia of the radical dejected? What can politics learn from the perspective of the "abyss that laughs at creation"?

That quote from Joy Division's "Heart And Soul" - with Curtis sounding his most Black Metal-like - touches on one of the running discussions at the event: Morrissey versus Ian Curtis. It seems to me clear that Curtis was a denizen of the Cold World in the way that Morrisey is not, and I think it is worth thinking through why this is the case. The Cold World involves terror, and Joy Division are terrifying - which is not a word one would ever associate with Morrissey, no matter how glum the song. It isn't only Morrissey's campness which disqualifies him, though I don't think the notion of camp dysphoria makes much sense - there can be a pathos to camp, to be sure, but it never approaches the frozen certainty of depression. Camp centres on play-acting and distanciation (that is why it is the form of postmodern subjectivity par excellence: I don't believe but nevertheless I play along). Dysphoria, meanwhile, involves both a disdain for play-acting and an inability to achieve any distance, particularly in relation to oneself. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the distance between the dejected subject and the rituals of the symbolic order is so total that it is no longer liveable. The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life - or inner death - overwhelms everything; at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of play-acting, a series of pantomime gestures ("a circus complete with all fools"), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform - there's no point, everything is a sham.

Where Morrissey still appeals to an Other who could make things right, who could restore the half a person to wholeness ("Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want"), Curtis is convinced that things could never be improved. When I wrote about Joy Division before, I opposed Curtis's "neurosis" to Mark E Smith's "psychosis" - but now it strikes me that it is better to think of Curtis as a melancholic who can be contrasted to Morrissey's neurotic. For Darian Leader, the difference between the melancholic and the neurotic is that the melancholic is certain that they are worthless, whereas the neurotic is unsure, always seeking to resolve their status. "Neurotic symtoms are always a way of asking a question ... In melancholia, one the contrary, the self-reproaches are less a way of asking a question than a kind of solution. The subject is guilty. They have been condemned." Morrissey may sometimes appear to be sure that he is "the most inept that ever stepped" but, for all their ostensibly categorical quality, such declarations still seem to be questions rather than definitive statements: am I the most inept? am I unloveable? However resigned to hopelessness Morrissey tries to be, he is aways tormented and tantalised by the prospect that there could be some One who can save him.

What is remarkable about Joy Division is the way they are bereft of two of the mainstays of most other rock and pop: longing and supplication. On the occasions that the 'you', usually so ubiquitous in pop music, features in Curtis's songs it is neither as as an Other held responsible for his condition nor deemed capable of ameliorating it. No amelioration is possible, that's the point - and that's why depression is not mere sadness, not a "mood" that will lift, but an ontological conviction. (Perhaps it is only on "Disorder" - "I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand" - that there is any hint of a redeeming Other, but even here the hope, such as it is, seems faint, or perhaps already abandoned: Like a fool, I've been waiting.... but the redeemer will never come. Depression is a "world", not only because it colours all experience - or rather removes all colour, reducing everything to the stark black and white of the Unknown Pleasures cover (black and white thinking is a hallmark of the depressive condition) - but also because it lacks any limits. Depression is experienced not as depression, as some "illness" susceptible to treatment, but as the Truth. Given this, no-one else could help the depressive; or at least, that is how it looks from the Cold World. Others are impotent, puppets of a pitiless fatality that makes agency an illusion (an illusion to to which they, insofar as they are not themselves depressed, are victims): they are either unreachable ("Candidate"), betrayers ("Means To An End"), or else themselves betrayed ("Shadowplay").

What makes Joy Division so Schopenhauerian is the disjunction between Curtis's detachment and the urgency of the music, its implacable drive standing in for the dumb insatiability of the life-Will, the Beckettian "I must go on" not experienced by the depressive as some redemptive positivity, but as the ultimate horror, the life-Will paradoxically assuming all the loathsome properties of the undead (whatever you do, you can't extinguish it, it keeps coming back). Perhaps it is this disjunction which goes to explain the strong correlation between depression and aesthetics. Identified with the dead yet still amongst the living, the melancholic cannot live, but equally cannot achieve either quiescence or quiet: they must speak about their predicament. As Leader points out, "A melancholic subject is in two places at once, two different spaces that cannot be superimposed. But how can this agony be communicated? One of the features of melancholia over the ages has been its association with artistic creation and writing. Indeed, in some periods, discussions of melancholia have emphasized the creative aspect far more than its depressive elements."

One final difference between Morrissey and Joy Division. Curtis is strangely lacking in the self-pity which is Morrissey's stock in trade. That's because Curtis's despair is so total, his fatalism is so complete, that he sees his own dejection as only one aspect of a cosmic condition. In Cold World, Dominic invokes the Black Metal distinction between "pure misanthropy" and "self-pity": "in order to be pure, misanthropy must be purified of any attachment to the human self that would fall within its remit." Curtis wasn't misanthropic - he seemed to see humans as forlorn Burroughs marionettes to be "observed with a pitiful eye": for him, as for Schopenhauer, the problem was existence itself, but his despair had the impersonality characteristic of BM's anti-humanism.

So much for dysphoria, but what of militancy? Here, perhaps, I can introduce a personal note. I've passed through the Cold World a few times, and I can say - I hope without melodrama - that I'm lucky to have survived it. Yet emergence from the "deserts and wastelands" has never meant a happy reinsertion back into the cheer and security of the lifeworld. A spell in the Cold World necessariy involves a subjective destitution, and what then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes. Both Nick and Nathan highlighted the way in which an interruption of habit and the habituated was a precondition for militancy; this was certainly how things worked in my case, in which serious depression was replaced by political anger. Yet the Cold World is not just some preparation for militancy: it is important to retain a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields. When Dominic spoke last week, his account of dysphoria - that is prompted by a loss that projects the sufferer out of their set of symbolic attachments - sounded like Freud's discussion of melancholia; but it also reminded me of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Perhaps - and here again the notion of "militant dysphoria" seems especially urgent just now - militant dysphoria could provide a leftist alternative to the shock doctrine, which violently deprives populations of their symbolic co-ordinates as a preparation for imposing a neoliberal narrative on their shattered nervous systems. At a time when capitalism itself has been denuded of its symbolic embedding - when it has itself been plunged into a dysphoric condition - the time is right for new narratives to be developed and propagated.

Posted by mark at October 8, 2009 06:25 PM | TrackBack