Home and Homelessness in Punk Rock

“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”

–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1

Introduction

Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.

But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.

In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.

Homelessness

Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold ­– as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.

However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.

When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.

This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4

As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.

Home-building

Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.

The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.

Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.

The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.

We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.

Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.

Subcultures and Home

When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.

Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.

As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.

Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.

But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.

In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.

Punk Rock

There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.

This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.

The Swastika

A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:

It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13

Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.

In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:

You still think swastikas look cool?

The real Nazis run your schools.

They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.

In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16

Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.

The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.

Underground Clubs

The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.

The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.

Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.

Fanzines

Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.

The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.

And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.

Notes

  1. Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.

 

  1. Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.

 

  1. Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.

 

  1. Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.

 

  1. Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.

 

  1. Plato, 31.

 

  1. Hebdige, p. 63.

 

  1. Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.

 

  1. Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.

 

  1. Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.

 

  1. Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.

 

  1. Griel Marcus, p. 118.

 

  1. Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.

 

  1. Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.

 

  1. Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.

 

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).

 

  1. Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.

 

  1. Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Ibid.

She Came to Stay

shecametostayI have mixed feelings about Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay. I suspect that if I had no previous interest in existentialist philosophy, I would not have put the effort into finishing this 400 page book. It is a story about the relationship between three main protagonists – Francoise, Pierre and Xaviere – and their failed attempt to form a happy “threesome,” in which they try to allow their mutual romantic attractions to flourish alongside their friendship. I found much of the narrative tedious, with characters so foreign to my own experiences that at many points I became confused, unable even to understand their motivations.

The characters in Beauvoir’s story live lives of urban boredom and decadence. Francoise is writing a novel, but most of her time is spent in bars, cafes and restaurants, where, night after night, she smokes, drinks, dances and socializes with a circle of friends and acquaintances. Pierre is part of an acting troupe. He splits his time between rehearsing for his latest play, drinking and going to parties. Xaviere is a young woman from Rouen, a small town outside of Paris, who Francoise and Pierre take under their wings, exposing her to Parisian urban life, encouraging her to become an actress while also competing for her attention and affection. The drama that develops between these characters is reportedly similar to the situation in real-life that threatened to drive a wedge between Beauvoir and Sartre when, in pursuit of their own free and open relationships, jealousies erupted between them. As a biographical detail, this last point is more interesting to me than is the actual novel itself, which drags along, really going nowhere in terms of the action. The characters sit around, drink, smoke, dance and talk. Hostility recurrently erupts, is smoothed over, and then erupts again. In terms of the content of the story itself, then, I found the book monotonous and strange. I kept wondering, “Why are these people bothering with this?” Their “threesome” seemed to me more like an annoyance than anything titillating or exciting.

But since I do have an interest in existentialism, and since I am a fan of Beauvoir’s other philosophical works (such as The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity), I was motivated to look past the superficial dullness of this novel’s story in order to try and understand its deeper, philosophical intent. And that intent is there, scattered in clues throughout the novel’s pages. What I think Beauvoir was attempting to do with She Came to Stay was to illustrate the various ways that people fall into “bad faith,” the primary “sin” that existentialist philosophy counsels us to avoid.

All human consciousnesses are free according to Beauvoir. We live our lives pursuing our own chosen projects while also having to negotiate and contend with people around us who also pursue their own freely chosen goals and projects. According to existentialists, human beings are “thrown” into a world populated by others, and while we cannot avoid living among other people, we can choose how it is that we will comport ourselves toward them.  In the course of life, human beings choose to enter into partnerships with one another, sometimes encouraging each other in their freedom and working together to help one another fulfill goals. When people consciously and enthusiastically embrace one another’s freedom, they act “authentically.” However, there are also times when people pursue goals that come into conflict with the goals of others. It is then that we often find the eruption of hostility, and one of the common responses to this is to fall into a state of “bad faith.” In bad faith, we become resentful against the forces around us that keep us from doing what we want, and so we lash out, coming to treat others and ourselves as if we are not at all free, but as if we are objects capable of being manipulated like any other non conscious “thing” in the world. Bad faith can offer a kind of psychological comfort, since it makes us feel as if we are not responsible for our own mistakes and failures, but it is “bad” precisely because it is a lie, according to Beauvoir. Whenever I think of myself as a mere “thing,” capable of being manipulated by others, or when I think of others as mere “things,” to be manipulated by myself, I falsify the reality of what it means of be a human.

In She Came to Stay, all three main characters seem to illustrate differing manifestations of bad faith. The story is told from the perspective of Francoise, whose bad faith is a reaction to her own boredom with empty routine and her increasing awareness of mortality. She realizes that her Parisian lifestyle is a pointless tedium; her most pressing decisions consisting of which restaurants to eat in, and what sort of liquor to drink.  “There was nothing but an accumulation of meaningless moments, nothing but a chaotic seething of flesh and thought, with death looming at the end.” (p. 130) Because of this awareness, Francoise uses Xaviere, a pretty young country girl, to distract herself from the ugly truth, hoping that the young woman will inject new excitement and vitality into her life. She wants to initiate Xaviere into the bohemian world of Parisian artists, acting as a mentor and (it seems) romantic companion.  Instead of grabbing hold of her own existence by herself and making the decision to change its course altogether, Francoise drags another human being into her tedious world in order to spice things up.

Francoise tells Xaviere, in beginning pages of the story, “as long as you stay in Rouen you will never do anything,” (p. 33) suggesting that the young woman’s destiny lies in where she lives, not in the choices she makes. Consequently, Francoise encourages Xaviere to move to Paris, where she will be supported by Francoise and Pierre, who treat her as raw material with the potential to become a hedonistic bohemian,  just like themselves. Xaviere will live in the same hotel as Francoise, she will go dancing at the same clubs, eat the same food, drink the same liquor, and become an actor. She will be a possession; an ornament that others will admire. And Francoise and Pierre will be admired as well for their efforts to save this uncultured country girl from backwardness. In all of this, Xaviere is treated as a mere thing rather than as a full, free human being. When she starts to assert her own will, and threatens to compromise the relationship between Pierre and Francoise, Francoise panics, and begins to see the young woman as a threat rather than as her personal pet.

Pierre is complicit in Francoise’s project, and together they conspire in their plans to mold Xaviere into a flesh and blood embodiment of their shared ideal. However, Pierre’s interest in Xaviere becomes increasingly jealous as he starts to cultivate a romantic interest in her. Neither Pierre nor Francoise are all that concerned with one another’s sexual interest in Xaviere, but what is troubling is Pierre’s growing obsession with her, his desire to possess her and keep her from other men, such as her boyfriend Gerbert. Outraged when he discovers Xavier and Gerbert having sex (which he observes like a peeping tom by peering at them through a keyhole), Pierre finds himself swept up by covetous desires and emotions that threaten to drive a wedge between himself and Francoise and to destroy the “threesome” they share with Xavier.

Pierre’s bad faith is rooted in a self centered desire for those around him to tolerate his own whims and fancies while denying his effects on others. Throughout the story his irrational jealously for Xaviere bubbles up as hostility, which he then projects onto Xaviere herself. Speaking to Francoise, he says, “We wanted to build a real trio, a well-balanced life for three, in which no one was sacrificed. Perhaps it was taking a risk, but at least it was worth trying! But if Xaviere wants to behave like a jealous little bitch, and you have to be the unfortunate victim, while I play the gallant lover, it becomes nothing but a dirty business.” (p. 295) But it is Pierre who is the jealous one, and he is anything but “gallant.”  He is more like a child who can’t understand the confusion that he and Francoise must be causing this young woman – a virgin – whose affections are courted from all sides. He desires her precisely because she is young, vital, naive and unpredictable, but at the same time he derides and insults her for acting like a naive and unpredictable young woman. Pierre insists that Xaviere must be free, but he nonetheless wants to possess her, and thus to curtail and control her freedom. All the while, he assures Francoise that it is she, and not Xaviere, that is really special to him. In Pierre, thus, we find a tangled knot of bad faith that derives from his denial of the inconsistencies in his various projects. Simultaneously he want to have a “threesome” in which no one is sacrificed, he wants to retain a special relationship with Francoise, and he wants to possess Xaviere. But these three projects cannot coexist, and for Pierre to act as if they possibly could is to lie to himself.

Xaviere is, in her own way, the most annoying character in the novel. She pouts, mopes and throws tantrums. She is jealous, at various points, of both Francoise and Pierre. She is frivolous and unreliable. But then again, she is just a young, naive and unexperienced girl, so what are we to expect? One wonders, as the novel progresses, why it is that Francoise and Pierre spend so much energy thinking about her, talking about her and trying to control her. The answer, as stated above, is that she is a distraction, helping them forget their own boredom, fear of growing old and despair over the passage of time.  On an existential level, their attraction to Xaviere has to with her relationship to temporality. To Xaviere, time means nothing. She lives in the now, reacting to the feelings that pop up in her, moment by moment. While this is what makes her attractive to Francoise and Pierre, it also what makes her unpredictable and unreliable. She believes that no one should make plans or practice and hone their skills, as if to do so would undermine the vital spontaneity of the moment. This represents a contrary form of bad faith to that found in Pierre and Franciose. According to existentialists, humans are, in their essence, temporal beings, and while reflection on the past or the future may at times cause us anguish, the unwillingness to recognize the role of temporality in our lives is delusional. One cannot plan or pursue projects without stepping out of the present, learning from past mistakes and resolving to act in accordance with future goals. Xaviere mistakes lack of discipline and spontaneity for authenticity, not recognizing that to authentically commit to a life project, one has to take hold of life and steer it in the direction that one has freely chosen. Without this sort of longer term perspective, one’s life becomes a series of fits and stops with no overarching shape, purpose or direction. Life becomes chaotic, tedious and meaningless.

The sorts of bad faith illustrated by Beauvoir in She Came to Stay, then, might be divided into two sorts. On the one hand the characters of Francoise and Pierre are exemplars of a kind of bad faith that stems from the attempt to flee from an overly attuned awareness of temporality. Boredom and fear of growing old are their motivations. On the other hand, the character of Xaviere is an exemplar of a kind of bad faith stemming from a complete ignorance of temporality. Because of her youth and inexperience, she is not even aware of the power that time exercises over human choice.

It is interesting that there are two key points in the narrative when Francoise appears to really become confident, self assured and happy in her own powers. The first is when she sleeps with Xaviere’s boyfriend, Gerbert. The other is when she takes steps to kill Xaviere. Together, these two acts seem symbolic of her complete domination of the young woman that she previously claimed as her protege; the complete reduction of Xaviere into a thing-in-itself. In the first instance, Francoise proclaims to herself, while gazing in a mirror, “I’ve won.” (p. 375) In the second instance, after turning the gas on in Xaviere’s bedroom, Francoise thinks to herself, “I have done it of my own free will.” The novel closes with the assertion, “She had chosen herself.” (p. 404)

beauvoirTo live authentically, and to avoid bad faith, a person must grab hold of his or her situation. But in doing so, it must also be recognized that the human situation is one in which we are thrown among others to whom we have responsibilities. Humans are free, and because of this, as we make our way through life pursuing our own projects and goals, we are destined to run into resistance. When this happens it is our responsibility to honor the freedom in ourselves and others and to avoid lapsing into resentful ways of thought. If we fail to do so, then we will find ourselves surrounded by enemies instead of neighbors, and life will become a hostile struggle for control rather than a stimulating adventure of “being-with-others” in a world freely chosen and enthusiastically shared. The characters in She Came to Stay have not learned this lesson, and perhaps that is why all of them are so petty, hateful, jealous and unlikable.

Existentialism

existentialismIt is widely claimed, both by its supporters and detractors, that existentialism is an unsystematic philosophy. I recall one of my own advisors in graduate school disparaging the “moodiness” of existential thought as “adolescent” because she found it lacking in rigor. In it she saw something resembling a dark “perspective” or “attitude” ruled by emotions and feelings rather than a coherent, rational philosophy consisting of clearly articulated and integrated claims about the nature of reality. Walter Kaufman, on the other hand, praised and admired what he saw as the passionate unruliness of existentialism, characterizing it as a healthy and exciting revolt against traditional philosophizing. The “unsystematic” nature of existentialism, thus, might be thought of either as a flaw or as a virtue depending on one’s attitude toward “systems” in general.

British philosopher David E. Cooper is a supporter of both systems and of existentialism. In his book Existentialism he presents a reconstruction of the philosophy as both coherent and logical, rejecting what he calls the “silly” view that it is at best a version of psychology and at worst a joke. Instead, Cooper contends that existentialism in fact constitutes a “movement of thought that, as our century closes, is increasingly perceived as the distinctive direction of that century’s philosophizing.” (p. viii) [This second edition of the book was published in 1999.]

The reason why it is so common to characterize existentialism as something other than a coherent philosophy stems from a number of sources, according to Cooper. For one thing, those thinkers commonly labeled as “existentialists” disagree about quite a bit; including whether or not they are indeed existentialists! Most centrally, Cooper highlights the friction between the ideas of Heidegger and Sartre (in fact devoting an appendix at the end of the book to this topic) in order to show the real problems involved in trying to square the ideas of two thinkers who, by any account, must be included in a book about this subject. Secondly, since key figures such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists, there is a tendency to rely very heavily on their fiction, rather than their philosophical texts, in trying to reconstruct existentialist ideas. But fiction is very rarely intended to be systematic, and so this may be more of a distraction than an aid in ferreting out a coherent existentialist philosophy. There is also the problem that some thinkers – like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – are central to the development of the existentialist tradition, however they are more like precursors or influences than they are existentialists in the sense of Heidegger or Sartre. The overall problem, then, is that when we use the term “existentialism” to refer to thinkers, we lack clear criteria by which to categorize them, perhaps mistaking superficial differences between thinkers for deeper philosophical differences, conflating philosophical ideas with fictional narratives, and confusing influences on thought with the content of the thought itself.

Cooper’s project, then, is to clarify the meaning of “existentialism.” He does this by imagining an “ideal existentialist” who “embodies the best wisdom … to be gleaned from actual existentialist writers.” (p. 10)  By scrutinizing the ideas of a variety of thinkers associated with the tradition, Cooper focuses in on the common center of those ideas, funneling and solidifying them into a figure he calls the “Existentialist.” While the ideal Existentialist – like the ideal Christian, or Scientist, or American – may not exist as a flesh-and-blood person, this figure nonetheless embodies the core tenets of what Cooper claims to be a systematic existentialist philosophy.

The initiating issue that serves as the starting point of this philosophy, according to Cooper, is an engagement with the problem of human alienation and the explication of a strategy for its overcoming. In this regard, Cooper roots the existentialist tradition in the same issue that concerned Hegel and Marx, both of whom diagnosed human alienation as the result of historical conditions. However, unlike Marx, the Existentialist does not hold that alienation is a recent historical problem, but one that is “spiritual.” In this, the Existentialist agrees with Hegel, who also sees alienation as a step in the direction of the development of self-consciousness. But unlike Hegel, the Existentialist does not agree that the human mind is an extrusion of some greater, self alienated cosmic mind. It is the individual, human mind itself – not universal Geist – that experiences alienation, according to Cooper’s Existentialist.

This individualized conception of human thought is related to the Existentialist’s preoccupation with phenomenology. Since alienation grows out of our own uniquely human ways of thinking, its overcoming requires that we examine and mend those patterns of thought that have brought us to our alienated situation. Existential phenomenology, in attending to the unfolding of lived, mental experience, helps to construct a description of the structure of inner human consciousness. In this description, the Existentialist comes to reject the idea of the “self” as a substance. Humans are not “things” determined by the influences of cause and effect, but conscious, non-substantial processes that strive freely toward goals and aspirations of their own making. The “self” of the Existentialist is a freely choosing and ongoing project.  Additionally, the Existentialist also embraces the phenomenological concept of “intentionality,” which holds that all of our conscious experience is experience of something. We never just “think” in an empty vacuum. Rather we always think about something, and  thus there must always be an interconnectedness between the thinking “self” and the things that “self” is consciously oriented toward. Our understanding of ourselves, thus, must always be developed within in a context of engagement with other things and other consciousnesses. (p. 47) We are, as conscious beings, always already “thrown” into relationships with others.

9780806501956The recognition of our “thrownness” into a world with others is a fundamental part of existentialist philosophy, according to Cooper. Phenomenologically, we are “beings-in-the-world,” already connected to others by the ways in which consciousness itself operates. We are not mere spectators, but actors embedded within lived, concrete contexts and relationships. It is our engagement in these relationships that brings meaning to existence. Humans are not substances that “exist in splendid logical isolation from anything else.” (p. 75) No, humans create themselves by choosing to interact with the “things” that they consciously encounter and confront. This is how we build our lives, making ourselves into “writers, criminals, cowards or whatever.” (p. 76) In contrast to the Cartesian notion of the mind as an isolated, nonphysical substance sitting apart and separate from the rest of the physical world, the Existentialist describes human consciousness as something that does not exist at all without the world it inhabits. This particular point is one that Cooper thinks has been obscured by Sartre, who, in Existentialism is a Humanism, referred to the Cartesian Cogito as his starting point. This assertion inspired a hostile response from Heidegger, who in his Letter on Humanism, rejected Sartre’s “dualistic” position, which he claimed made a false distinction between the worlds of mind and matter. But, as Cooper rightly points out, in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre gives a much more detailed account of consciousness, it is clear that he does not differ so radically from Heidegger at all, but rather concurs in the characterization of consciousness as a “nothing” or a “clearing” within the very fabric of Being rather than as a substance existing separately from the rest of the world. Human consciousness is like the hole within a doughnut, which cannot exist apart from the dough itself, but which is also distinct from the dough as a kind of “lack” or clearing in the dough. Similarly, human consciousness is like a clearing within Being itself, and so is not a substance determined by the causal laws governing the physical universe itself. Consciousness is a “nothingness” sitting within the physical world, free to construct its own perspectives and interpretations on the world into which it has been thrown (or torn?). When regarded as we actually are phenomenologically, human beings are not mere objects, separate and aloof from the rest of Being. According to the Existentialist, human consciousnesses are more like clearings within Being. Within consciousness, thought unfolds freely, and thus it is always actively involved in choosing how to comport itself toward the world it inhabits.

This is logically related to the existentialist concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity according to Cooper. Because of our freedom to choose, we experience an unsettling sense of responsibility for the course that our lives take while being-in-the-world-with-others. This sense of responsibility may at times feel overwhelming, and so there is a recurrent tendency for humans to lapse into inauthentic ways of life. We become tempted to lie to ourselves, and to claim, falsely, that we are substances among other substances, subject to the same push and pull of external forces that determine the movements of mere physical things. By lying to ourselves in this way, we experience relief from what can often be experienced as a crushing sense of guilt. After all, if the course of my life is determined by forces outside of my control, then I cannot be blamed for my failures or shortcomings. Rather, blame may be placed on my economic condition, or my upbringing, or my genetics, or my psychological constitution. While all of these factors may be a part of the pre-given world that my consciousness has been thrown into, none of them necessarily determines what I am going to do with my life once I exist within the world. Even a poor person, for instance, has to choose how to live with or react to poverty. When living in a state of inauthenticity, a human being forgets this, instead falling prey to the delusion, for instance, that the world of poverty determines a specific way of life, rather than recognizing that it is the human actor who determines what to do when thrown into a life of poverty.

The inauthentic way of life is encouraged by our absorption into the “They”; the society of others who seek to use us as means to their own ends. This is part of the ambiguous nature of our relationship with others. On the one hand, we need others in order to situate ourselves, to react against, and to see ourselves reflected. It is in relationship with “them” that we discover our own power of choice by way of negotiating a place within the world. However, in this there is also a temptation to fall prey to “them,” forgetting of our own power of choice, allowing ourselves to become cogs in the social machine. For instance, it may be tempting for a person living in poverty to view himself or herself as a victim of economic circumstances, and thus fall prey to others who offer rescue while promoting some sort of economic or political agenda.  In abandoning one’s self to the interpretations and schemes of others, a human being can lose sight of their own powers of interpretation, and instead of authentically taking hold of life, act like a passive pawn in someone else’s game. When we think of ourselves this way, be become inauthentic.

Inauthenticity is a form of thinking that covers over the truth of existential freedom, and for this reason, the term is loaded with normative/ethical connotations. As Cooper points out, this is one of the issues that seems to divide Heidegger and Sartre. While Heidegger emphasizes authenticity and inauthenticity as states of Being, neither good nor bad, Sartre tends to cast inauthenticity (or bad faith) in moral terms as something that is unethical. Cooper suggests that there may be something a bit disingenuous about Heidegger’s insistence that a word like “inauthentic” is not intended to have any normative connotations. Consequently, in Cooper’s characterization of the ideal Existentialist, he highlights the ethical importance of striving toward authenticity in one’s self and in others as a part of the existential philosophy. Existentialism, thus, is non a form of “amoralism,” but contains an essentially ethical message: Our own freedom is dependent on recognizing the freedom of others. “Only if I regard and treat others – or better, regard them through  treating them – as loci of existential freedom will I receive back an image of myself as just such a locus.” (p. 187) The ethical message here is articulated as what sounds like a version of egoism insofar as the grounding of Cooper’s existentialist morality lies in the desire for the individual to be treated as free, and not in some sort of altruistic desire to make others free. In other words, it is only because I want to be recognized as free that I treat others as free. Indeed, this focus on individual liberation, according to Cooper, imbues the Existentialist with a degree of elitism, since in pursuing personal authenticity, the focus is on “private perfection” (p. 193) rather than the more “grand,” democratic project of perfecting the world for everyone. And yet, in the end, the outcome may be the same. If I do unto others as I wish them to do to me, it may not matter that my motivation is egoistic. Others will still benefit.

Nonetheless, Cooper does suggest in the closing paragraphs of his book that there may be a more “grand” kind of existentialism that can be found in the very practice of philosophy itself. He points out that while philosophy is in one sense elitist – being pursued by a small group of people who withdraw from the mainstream of society in order to devote their lives to reflection on the human condition –  as a discipline, it is nonetheless devoted to making contributions to culture as a whole. The collective lessons learned by those who have withdrawn from the “They” in order to become “authentic” in turn flow back to society, giving guidance to others in search of their own authenticity. Perhaps, then, this is the final step in the Existentialist’s overcoming of alienation. By first withdrawing from, but then returning to, the They we may find the closing of a circle that is part of the ongoing rhythm of existential thought. Alienation is overcome when, after first resisting the world around us, we come to understand that such resistance is dependent upon our antecedent thrownness into that very same world that we find ourselves bristling against. Our reintegration is accomplished by authentically embracing the totality of the existential struggles that are part and parcel of being-in-the-world-with-others.

My criticisms of Cooper’s book are few, and mostly related to his strategy for constructing the ideal type of Existentialist. While I find very little to complain about in terms of the final “system” of existentialism that Cooper ends up with – it pretty much encompasses what I always took to be the major doctrines of the philosophy – I do question some of the choices he makes along the way. For instance, early on in the book Cooper insistently excludes Albert Camus from his consideration of existentialist thinkers. His reason for this exclusion is that “unlike the rest of our writers, it is not at all his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world.” (p. 9) But this makes it appear as if Cooper has already settled on a definition of “existentialism,” and rather than considering all of the evidence at hand, he has decided to leave out thinkers, like Camus, who don’t fit his a priori conceptions. While I personally question whether it is true that Camus really is unconcerned with the alleviation of human alienation (his essay The Myth of Sisyphus is focused precisely on this topic), could it nevertheless be the case that some existentialists while not necessarily offering a solution to alienation could, in a more general sense, simply be concerned with the issue of human alienation?  If Cooper’s definition was broadened in this way, then he could include the insights of Camus, a thinker who, like Heidegger, seems to me centrally important to an understanding of existentialism. The exclusion of Camus is especially strange as later on in the book Cooper, in various places, draws on the ideas of Iris Murdoch, a thinker only peripherally connected to the tradition, in order to shape his definition. Including Murdoch, but excluding Camus, is a very odd decision indeed.

20120617-154833A less serious criticism has to do with Cooper’s repeated denigration of certain subcultures – like beatniks, hippies, and punks – as misrepresentations, or hollow examples of, the lessons of existential philosophy. Cooper never gives much of a justification for these repeated attacks, which I presume are rooted in his assumption that the members of these groups are themselves shallow and unphilosophical. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization. I suspect that Cooper has not really studied these subcultures in depth, and so his comments in this regard are probably best just to throw away. However as someone who still has a bit of the punk rocker in him, I personally found such repeated insults annoying.

As a whole, I really admire the work that Cooper has put into Existentialism. I suppose there are those, like Walter Kaufman, who would object to the entire project of trying to delineate a systematic philosophy of existentialism. I don’t share such an objection, however. The philosophy articulated in this book is clear, sensible and – even if I don’t agree with all of its tenets – very attractive in its general contours.

The Philosophy of the Joker

The Philosophy of The Joker – Wisecrack Edition

Written by Tom Head and directed by Jared Bauer, this well researched and very nicely made short video addresses existential and nihilistic issues related to the Joker, a character from the Batman comics and movies. Alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schopenhauer and Jean Baudrillard, there are also references to John Marmysz!

Screen Bodies

jnl_cover_screen[1]Issue #1 of the journal Screen Bodies is now available. My article, “Monstrous Masses: The Human Body as Raw Material,” appears on pages 51-70:

This article investigates the varied reactions of audiences to cinematic depictions of the human body as objectified raw material. The investigation proceeds, first, by explicating an ontological distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, which in turn allows for a clarification of the processes involved in the objectification of one human being by another. The article then argues that in films where depictions of bodily objectification are pushed to an extreme—such as The Human Centipede, Nymphomaniac, and Videodrome—a potentially positive, empathic potential is unlocked in audiences. Rather than simply resulting in the humiliation of human characters, such films encourage audiences to experience a kind of sympathy for the characters that is related to, but not distinct from, other horrific, humorous, and erotic feelings. The article concludes that the objectification of human bodies in film is both unavoidable and a potentially positive moral exercise.

Disinformation Interview

c1b2f1b7477fccd5e4efb469ff277332Brian Whitney interviewed me for Disinformation.com.

My Interview With a Nihilist Means Nothing, As Does Your Life

It looks like people are already getting all worked up over nothing!

Roads to Freedom

imagesAfter thoroughly enjoying Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, I looked forward to reading the other two books in The Roads to Freedom trilogy: The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep. Unfortunately, neither of these works measured up to the excellence of the first installment in the series. In fact, I initially became so exasperated with The Reprieve that I set it aside for a few months before mustering the energy to once again make an attempt to finish it. It was a slog, but I eventually did make my way through it and Troubled Sleep, not because I found them especially enjoyable but out of a weird feeling that having started the project of reading the trilogy I needed to finish the task. And now it is done.

The Age of Reason really drew me in with the story of Mathieu, a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. Here was a book that articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings about life, meaninglessness and growing old. In another posting on this blog I detailed what I loved about this book, so here I will just report that I had expected the story of Mathieu to continue in the last two volumes of the trilogy. Unfortunately, Mathieu only makes sporadic appearances in the remaining books as the narrative structure of the story becomes much more fractured and confusing; especially in the second volume, The Reprieve.

DownloadedFileThe Reprieve consists of a kaleidoscope of stories that bleed into one another and that seem intended to convey a sense of collective, anxious nervousness in the days leading up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The title refers to the fact that, at the end of the book, war is temporarily averted by the concessions made to Germany. The mood is frantic, and I will admit that the writing style does help to produce this effect in the reader. Unfortunately it is also at the expense of narrative clarity. Each time I felt that I was beginning to gain some orientation toward what was going on in the novel, the scene would change and I was lost once again. The transitions between the various vignettes are abrupt and unpredictable; the characters are too numerous and mush into one another; the action moves from place to place. All of this contributed to my exasperation. The back cover characterizes the book’s style as “stream of consciousness” and as utilizing a “cinema technique of simultaneity,” but to me the writing just seemed undisciplined and jarringly incongruous in comparison to the style in which the other two installments in the trilogy are written.

This is not to say that there is nothing to recommend The Reprieve. There are characters and episodes that are truly effective and that have stayed with me. We get to check in with Mathieu as he goes off to join a French fighting unit, finally making a resolute decision to act in the world and to break out of his bourgeois lifestyle. And there is Gros-Louis, a stupid and pathetic character who bumbles through the story, getting drunk, being beaten up and taken advantage of. He has orders to report to his unit, but since he is illiterate, he can’t read them and must rely on others to direct him in what to do. And there’s young Ivich who is disappointed in her hope for the utter destruction of Paris by the Nazis. Perhaps the most effective scene in the novel is toward the end when her rape is juxtaposed with the negotiations for the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany without a fight. The comparison of Ivich’s personal, sexual violation with the collective, political violation of the Czech people really does produce a startling and upsetting effect.

All is frantic, anxious confusion in The Reprieve, with the characters swept up in the political uncertainty of the times leading up to World War II. Sartre, I think, was trying to convey a sense that while the world at that point in history felt out of any one individual’s control, people were still making existential decisions whether they realized it or not. This is reinforced in the scenes featuring Chamberlin, Hitler, Mastny, Daladier and other politicians. While the forces of history seem to be sweeping impersonally over the continent, behind all of this stand flesh-and-blood human beings who are negotiating, planning and scheming. There is nothing necessary or impersonal about the course that history takes. The war, which from the perspective of the people seems to loom like a threatening force of nature, is actually the result of human decision making. History unfolds according to the collective choices that humans make, and we fall into bad faith the moment that we relinquish our own responsibility for the state of the world. In The Reprieve, we meet characters who have yet to fully learn this lesson.

DownloadedFileTroubled Sleep is organized in a more coherent manner than is The Reprieve. Part One focuses on a retreating French unit, of which Mathieu is a member. This unit has failed to repel the Nazi incursion and now simply waits for something to happen. Having been abandoned by their officers, these men are leaderless and in a state of disarray. They are terrified by the advance of the German “Supermen,” and are convinced that there is nothing that they can do to stop their advance. Some of them get drunk, some of them sit around reading books that they have found in the ruins, one of them starts a sexual relationship with a French postal worker. In a way, what they do is not much different from life before the war. In the absence of leaders to issue orders, these men meander about and waste time, waiting to be captured or to die.

Things change when another French unit arrives. This unit is also without officers but is nonetheless ready to resist the advances of the Nazis. Mathieu and some of his comrades join together with this group and resolve to fight back. When the Germans arrive, a clash ensues in which it becomes clear that Mathieu and his fellow soldiers are vastly outnumbered. As the fighting intensifies, Mathieu becomes increasingly worried that he will prove to be a coward.  But as he fires his weapon he gains courage, realizing that the Germans are human, that they are “vulnerable” just as he is; they are not “Supermen.” The French troops are overwhelmed, but they fight on, killing as many Germans as they are able and trying to hold out for just a few more minutes. “This was no more than the beginning of his own death” (p.254). Mathieu dies in battle, firing his gun and realizing that he is free. He has chosen not to be a coward through his actions. At this point in the story, I was reminded of a line from the previous book when Mathieu thinks to himself, “freedom is exile, and I am condemned to be free.  …I am free for nothing” (p. 363). This is Sartre’s message: being conscious of one’s freedom is its own reward. There is nothing but this sort of authentic self-awareness that makes life worth living. In this sense, Mathieu dies a happy man.

Part Two of Troubled Sleep details the lives of a group of French prisoners of war who wait in a camp while the Nazis decide what is to be done with them. In this final installment in the story, I got the sense that the prisoners were their own worst enemies. Sartre depicts them as hostile toward one another, fighting over food and arguing over whether the Germans are really all that bad. They become angry when one of their group successfully escapes the camp, viewing it as some sort of betrayal of their captor’s hospitality! The central character in this segment of the story is Brunet, a communist who busily tries to organize the members of the camp and to collectivize their resources. He meets continued resistance from most of the other prisoners; except for Schnieder, a printer who is helpful to Brunet, but also seemingly skeptical of his political agenda.

Part two of the book meanders on for hundreds of pages until the final scenes when the prisoners are loaded onto a train that they hope is bound for home. The reader, of course, is left with the ominous suspicion that all of these men will be taken to another camp where they will most likely be brutalized and worked to death. The book ends when one of the prisoners is shot to death and his body is left laying by the side of the tracks. The novel’s closing line, “Tomorrow the black birds would come,” refers equally well to the fate of the murdered prisoner’s body as it does to the remaining prisoners on the train. It is also a symbolic intimation of the future unfolding of the World War.

Conceptually, I like what it is that Sartre has attempted with The Roads to Freedom. Beginning with the first book, he has introduced us to a character who, in the midst of an existential crisis, illustrates the deep, spiritual difficultly of individual human choice and descion making. This is existentialism on the personal level. In the second book, we are thrust into a culture in turmoil as it struggles on a collective level with its situation and the threat to its existence. In the third book we are presented with two separate responses to the existential crisis. One the one hand, there is Mathieu who takes hold of his situation and acts in defiance of the Nazis, fighting and dying for nothing other than his own freedom. On the other, there are the prisoners of war who generally comply and submit to their Nazi captors. In their passivity, of course, they are still making a choice: the choice to obey. Unlike Mathieu who uses his fear to become self aware, the prisoners on the train allow fear to use them and to make them immobile and compliant. Both will die, but, Sarte seems to be telling us, at least Mathieu will die with a full realization of his own power and freedom to act in the world. “He fired: he was cleansed, he was all-powerful, he was free” (p. 256). Mathieu represents the individual who acts and is ultimately alone in the world, while the prisoners seem to represent the group, which is comprised of individuals who cannot bring themselves to act resolutely and independently.

In terms of aesthetic quality, The Roads to Freedom fails for me. While the first book was focused and fascinating, the remaining books are unfocused and fragmented. The Reprieve, especially, reads like it was written while Sartre was high on speed. Troubled Sleep, with its two separate parts, reads like two separate stories. I think that the material in these last two books could have been fruitfully edited down and integrated with the material in The Age of Reason in order to produce a single, cohesive story with Mathieu as the focal point.

I have just learned that there is a fourth, unfinished novel in The Roads to Freedom series. It has recently been published in English under the title The Last ChanceIt looks like my work is not yet over…

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014

homepageImage_en_USAfter returning from a month and a half long visit to Scotland at the beginning of the year, I was back on the plane to Glasgow for the 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference, held during the first week of July.

Jet lag hit me hard this time around. I arrived the day before the start of the conference, not anticipating the adverse effect such an abrupt interruption in my normal rhythms would have. I was unable to sleep my first night in Scotland, and as a result I operated in a haze the following day until I was able to slip back to my accommodations out in the suburbs (a subway and a train ride away) to catch up on my sleep that afternoon. Over the course of the week, I struggled with a disrupted sleep cycle that only settled down once the weekend commenced and the talks had come to an end. In the future I’ll try to arrive a few days early to ensure that my old bones can cope with this sort of annoying reality about international travel.

The atmosphere at the Film-Philosophy meeting was different from most US philosophy conferences I have attended. First of all, as might be expected in Europe, the vast majority of presentations were in the Continental tradition, with the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche and Badiou playing the most prominent roles. While I admit that it is precisely with such thinkers that my greatest interests lie, I must also confess that there were points at which I began to sympathize with some of the complaints voiced by my Anglo-American/Analytic friends concerning the obscurity of much Continental thought. At some of the talks I wasn’t sure if the effects of jet lag were interfering with my comprehension, if I was stupid, if the presenters were being unclear, or if the ideas being discussed were just very difficult. There was probably a bit of all four of these things going on, to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it was good to feel like I was being challenged with new and sometimes unfamiliar ideas.

A welcome surprise was how polite the attendees were with one another. Every comment made by audience members was prefaced with thanks and appreciative remarks to the speakers. There were no personal attacks or hostilities at any of the sessions I attended; things which are, unfortunately, not uncommon at many US philosophy conferences. Hostile verbal abuse became so bad at US conferences that at one point there was an official plea from the offices of the American Philosophical Association imploring its members to remain civil and tolerant with one another at meetings! In fact, the first time that I myself ever delivered a paper in the US, I was angrily attacked by a couple of men in the audience who heartily agreed with one another that I was both a racist and a sexist due to my interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Ironically, it was a group of women philosophers who came to my defense during that episode. (A funny side note is that the following year I was on a panel with one of my attackers who did not even remember me!) In any case, there was none of that sort of nonsense at the Film-Philosophy conference, where the atmosphere was quite friendly and welcoming.

One criticism I have concerns a number of the speakers, some of whom should have been more organized and prepared to operate in the time-frame scheduled for them. Most of the panel participants had 20 minutes for the reading of their papers while the various keynote speakers had over an hour to deliver their addresses. It was unfortunate that quite a few of the participants tried to cram too much information into their talks and thus found themselves editing their presentations as they went along. This was complicated by the fact that a lot of them also wanted to show film clips; something that was not always possible within the time constraints. The chairmen and chairwomen of the sessions were pretty good at enforcing time limits; however this resulted in presentations that sometimes ended up a bit fragmented and rushed.

I was part of a panel titled “Globalized Myths of Anywhere and Elsewhere.” Lucy Bolton, from the Queen Mary University of London, was the session chair, and Tiago De Luca, from the University of Liverpool, kicked things off with his paper “Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film.” His presentation analyzed films such as Babel, The Edge of Heaven and Amores Perros, all of which contain multiple, parallel, but only loosely connected narratives. His argument was that this sort of narrative structure reflects current trends in globalization in which people worldwide find their lives intertwined in ways that can lead both to meaningful connection and to a sense of passive fatalism. Andre Fischer, from Stanford University, continued the session with his paper “Mythic Thinking in Werner Herzog’s new grammar of images,” in which he drew on the ideas of Nietzsche to suggest that Herzog’s films express a Dionysian leap into the abyss, and the attempt to create a “grammar of images” that offers a mythic response to our modern malaise. I concluded the session with my paper “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular,” in which I applied Heideggerian insights concerning art to an analysis of movies filmed in Scotland. I argued that there is currently an emerging cinematic countermovement against past Scottish mythologizing that I call “the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.” In this new “myth,” Scotland is used as a setting for dramas that downplay traditional Scottish stereotypes, evoking worlds that could be anywhere at any time.

Our session went well, and afterwards there was an interesting, friendly conversation among the participants and the audience. I had a really good time and met some very interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.

A particularly interesting session was conducted later that afternoon by Laura U. Marks, from Simon Fraser University. Her keynote speech, “A World of Flowing, Intensifying Images: Mulla Sadra Meets Cinema Studies,” addressed issues in Islamic philosophy and applied them to film analysis. Marks focused on the idea of the “imaginal realm,” which is developed in the works of the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra. Islam is often thought to be hostile to the use of images and representations, but Marks argued that this is not always the case. In Shi’ite Islam there is a great degree of tolerance for the use of images that are believed (in a Platonic way) to be capable of functioning as conduits for the Truth. In the writings of Mulla Sadra, the concept of the “imaginal realm” – a realm of imagery existing halfway between the illusions of  the senses and the absolute Truths of the eternal Forms – offers a way of thinking about filmic representations that grants them a role in the human aspiration toward ultimate reality. This was fascinating stuff.

DARK-LIGHT-SCREENING_Poster2-160x160I began the last day of the conference by attending a screening of the film Dark Light, at which the filmmaker, Maria O’Connor, was present to discuss her work. The film consists of a 70 minute montage of horse imagery overlayed with an audio track in German, French and Italian. The audio consists of enigmatic utterances referencing thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Badiou, provoking viewers to consider the relationship between humanity and animality. Alongside images of horses being groomed and galluping we hear about Nietzsche’s collapse as he protectively threw his arms around a horse that was being beaten by its owner. There are references to Heidegger’s views on how animals don’t “die,” but simply “expire.” All of this raises questions in the viewers mind: What is the difference between how a human and a horse experiences the world? Are horses aware of death? What sort of spiritual bond exists between horses and humans? I found myself a bit befuddled by the film, and I confessed to O’Connor that I felt “discombobulated” after watching it. She laughed and seemed to be pleased with this reaction. On the first day of the conference she had been on a panel where she made comments about how her film experiments with ideas about the withdrawl of Being, and with ideas about how Being is revealed through the lives of children. As I later reflected on these thoughts it shed some light – even if it was a dark light – on the significance of her work. In any case, I enjoyed the opportunity to see her film and to hear her speak about it.

Over the course of the three day schedule I attended a number of other notable sessions dealing with the ideas of Deleuze, the politics of film, and the nature of remakes. By the time the conference concluded, my jet lag had passed, and once again it was time for me to hop on a plane and head back home to the US, away from the grey, cloudy, wet Glaswegian summer.

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014: A World of Cinemas

pageHeaderTitleImage_en_USThe 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference will take place July 2 to July 4 on the campus of the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I will be making a presentation on July 3 titled “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular.” Here’s the abstract:

In a number of recent films, Scotland has served as the setting for dramas that could have taken place anywhere. This has occurred in two related ways: First, there are films such as Doomsday (2008), Perfect Sense (2011), and Under the Skin (2013). These films involve storylines that, while they do take place in Scotland, do not require the country as a setting. Second, there are films such as Prometheus (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), and World War Z (2013). These films, while being filmed (at least partly) in Scotland, have plots that do not involve Scotland. Scottish locations, in this second group of movies, act as stand-ins for locations in other cities, or even other worlds.

This phenomenon, in which the uniqueness of Scottish locations is deemphasized so that they may act as mere backdrops for the primary action in films, is a relatively new one. It is in sharp contrast to another, more traditional tendency in movie making in which Scottish locations are foregrounded to dramatize myths and stereotypes uniquely Scottish; such as Kailyard, Tartantry or Clydesideism. In this paper I pursue an analysis, drawing on the work of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, that characterizes this trend as part of a new Scottish myth in the making: the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.

The myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular takes the countryside and cities of Scotland as raw material for the telling of stories having transcultural interest. In this, Scotland becomes a space or clearing with no particular defining characteristics of its own to distract from the dramas themselves. This allows for the unfolding of narratives that, while they use Scotland as a setting, have little if anything to do with Scotland, and thus appeal to anyone, anywhere.

The conference website can be found at:

http://www.film-philosophy.com/conference/index.php/conf/F-P2014

Monstrous Masses

(This post is a fragment of a longer essay. I’m still thinking through some of the ideas, so consider this a work in progress!)

DownloadedFileMonstrous Masses: The Human Body as Raw Material

“This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.

 Introduction

Depictions of the human body as raw material are common in the cinema, being used to provoke a wide variety of disparate responses in audiences. To portray the human body as raw material is to show it as a “thing,” as an object that is subject to the impersonal, natural forces of cause and effect. Purely physical objects may be modified, manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder and sewn back together according to any logic consistent with the laws of physics, and when the human body is depicted in this way, it becomes an object of fascination, disgust, horror, and sometimes even sexual titillation. Portrayals of this kind are reminders of our brute, corporeal nature, which is not governed by intellect or free will, but by the push and pull of physical impact; of violent forces having nothing at all to do with our own personal hopes or desires. Such imagery provokes us to consider the implications of embodiment and to reflect on the latent vulnerabilities as well as the potentialities of flesh and blood. While viewing human bodies in this way, we are pushed to the boundaries of meaning and sense. It is here that nihilism erupts between the absurd reality of brute, physical existence and our yearning for that existence to maintain some sort of moral importance.

In-itself, the human body means nothing. It is a “thing” made up of parts connected one to another, all of which move and function in reaction to stimuli and forces that act from outside of the parts themselves. The arm that lovingly embraces a friend is the same conglomeration of cells, bones, and flesh that may later hatefully strike that same friend in anger. The arm itself cannot be praised or blamed for what it does. It is merely an instrument, a tool, a “thing” that can be utilized for good purposes or bad. Thus, when we observe a human body already being pulled downward by the forces of gravity, we don’t blame the body for its descent. When we see a body ravaged by the growth of cancer, we don’t reprimand it for being diseased. When we see a body in the throes of sexual arousal, we don’t reproach it for the way in which it reacts. These are just the facts of how bodies, once they have been set in motion, respond to the forces of the world.

The ways that we interpret, judge and evaluate the motions of bodies are potentially infinite in number. In horror films, the violent attacks of monsters tearing into the flesh of victims may be responded to with fear, disgust and gruesome curiosity. In action films, audiences respond with wonder and a thrilling sense of exhilaration when bodies fly through the air, bounce off of walls and one another, and then continue to move forward in their pursuits. In pornography, copulating bodies are responded to with feelings of erotic curiosity, or perhaps with disgust, as sexual acts are carried out with mechanical determination. In slapstick comedy, the physical collision of human bodies is played for laughs, as they are thrown this way and that, like any other “thing” subject to the physical laws of cause and effect. And then there are those films where a sense of awe and sublime respect result upon viewing the human body battered, destroyed and betrayed in the name of a religious or cultural cause. In all of these cases, it is the same human flesh, subjected to impact, stimulation, collision and battering, that is displayed for our fascinated attention. Audiences are variously horrified, excited, and amused by such depictions of the human body as raw material.

imagesThe Body as an Object

Over the years, much scholarly attention has been (and continues to be) brought to bear on the objectification of human bodies ­– in particular the bodies of women – in the popular media.[i] This concern with the body and its manner of visual representation is often tied to worries about the destructive effects of objectification, centering on issues related to domination, control and human degradation. Thus, for instance, feminists like Laura Mulvey argue that cinematic depictions of the “image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man” works to reveal and to reinforce structures of patriarchy and phallocentrism in our culture.[ii] Susan Bordo develops a similar point when she argues that in the media, representations of black women’s bodies are often accorded the status of “mere matter, thing-hood,”[iii] thus perpetuating the historical legacy of slavery. On the other side of the gender divide, objectified and idealized media representations of male bodies have also been linked by some researchers to feelings of dissatisfaction and depression in men.[iv]

But the idea that the human body (female or otherwise), when objectified, may become raw material for the actively aggressive gaze of an audience does, in fact, have a long philosophical history that has not always been so disapproving. Aristotle in particular provides a more positive assessment of this sort of dynamic in his classic work Poetics, where he characterizes the laughter in comedy as resulting from the objectification of lowly people who exhibit “a mistake or a deformity not productive of pain to others.”[v] Audiences laugh down at such “ugliness” according to Aristotle precisely because, in their own superiority, audiences feel no sympathy for the lowly characters thus depicted.[vi] Comic figures are objects of amusement; “things” whose misfortunes provoke no sense of painful compassion in viewers. It is this sort of objectification and denigration of others that allows for the enjoyable catharsis involved in laughter, and in fact Aristotle seems convinced that the health and success of any culture must allow for the consistent exercise of this sort of outlet. This is why for him the theatre was such an important part of the social apparatus.

The Marquis de Sade is another example of an author who expresses an approving attitude toward the objectification of human bodies; including his own. In his writings, such as The 120 Days of Sodom, we find catalogues of pornographic imagery intended to arouse and disgust those who read them. This imagery never treats the human victims as anything but objects; raw material for the enjoyment of the abusers. In fact, in the book Juliette, by accepting her role as an object, the main character ultimately becomes powerful, dignified and happy. This is the road to bliss for de Sade. One must lose one’s self and be engulfed by “nature,” which “permits anything” and encourages sexual pleasure through the manipulation and domination of other bodies. In a world in which “God’s existence is an illusion,”[vii] all that remains are bodies in motion, and thus the only realistic path to happiness lies in the affirmation of the body as a “thing” continuous with nature, not separate from it.  Indeed, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, it is precisely because de Sade desires to lose himself in this way that he objectifies others. By making others into “things,” he hopes “to remove himself by becoming an inert object.”[viii] So it is that de Sade frantically seeks to affirm the body as raw material whose value lies in its very meaninglessness.

Despite the insights of Aristotle and de Sade, many contemporary commentators tend to remain suspicious of human objectification, seeing the aggressive gaze of an audience as something belittling and denigrating to the full dignity of human beings. Really, in a dialectical sense, both sides in this debate are correct. There is often pleasure to be had in the dominating gaze that views others as objects, and often when one dominates with a look the subject of the look becomes debased. But neither is this always the case. There can also be a kind of pleasure that results from being looked at and objectified, just as there can be a kind of pain that is generated in one who looks at another human being as an object.  I think what is potentially objectionable about this dynamic is not necessarily the fact that pleasure is sometimes experienced by the one doing the gazing, but that there are times when pleasure is had at the expense of the one who is gazed at. Objectification, while not always disagreeable, may become so when the human body is regarded as nothing but raw material for the pleasure of another. When regarded in this way, it becomes easy to forget that human beings are not merely “things.” It becomes easier, as Bordo points out, to act as if their “moral and emotional sensibilities need not be treated with consideration,”[ix] thus potentially paving the way toward atrocity.[x]

crucify2Being-in-itself vs. Being-for-itself

Ultimately, there is no way to completely avoid making ourselves and others into objects.  In order even to form a consciousness of one’s “self,” a person must solidify, and thus objectify, an identity that acts as a focus of awareness. As a self, I am both one and multiple at the same time. To have a sense of “myself” I must recognize an inner part of “me” as it is mirrored in another inner part of “me.” This implies a self-regarding “turn” involving a break between differing regions of the mind, which we might call the inner observer and the inner observed.[xi] The inner observer, in reflecting, makes the inner observed into an object of reflection. Without such a “turn,” no self-recognition would be possible, and thus there could be no awareness of a distinct and unique “I.” My “self” is, thus, split between an in-itself and a for-itself: a reflected and a reflecting. I am both subject and object. This is Hegel’s point in the Phenomenology of Spirit when he writes, “A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’.”[xii] When thinking about ourselves, we become objects of our own thought, in a way analogous to how our own bodies become objects when we gaze into a mirror. In this sense, self-consciousness and self-identity require objectification. Without it, “I” would not even exist as a unique and separate being. “I” would dissolve away into the undifferentiated mass of Being that is the universe. “I” would become nothing at all.

Just as self-reflection requires that we encounter ourselves from a kind of “inner-outside” perspective as objects, when we experience others, we must also encounter them from the outside, as objects that are present to, and yet outside of, our own consciousness. In this encounter, the outer other is analogous to our inner observed self. It is a thing that we reflect upon and thus that is reflected back into us. It is like our body image in the mirror; an object that stands apart and away from us. Unlike the inner self that I take as the object of my self-consciousness, however, this outer other is foreign and strange to me insofar as it is separate from both my inner observer and my inner observed. It is not me in any sense. It is merely an outer object present to my gaze. In this way, it is even more removed from me than is my own body image, which is, after all, still “my” body image. I still retain some understanding of what is going on “inside” that body. The true other, however, is in no way “mine.” It is independent of my will and mysterious insofar as I lack an understanding of it from the inside. I know it purely as an external appearance. It is a mere object to me: a thing-in-itself.

When a mind takes in outer appearances, it sees them as stable and complete entities that are “in-themselves.” Jean-Paul Sartre defines the “in-itself” as that which “is what it is.”  It has no inside. It “has nothing secret; it is solid.”[xiii] The in-itself is purely a thing with no hidden life, no freedom and no capacity to avoid the contingencies of cause and effect. Insofar as we encounter the outer world from our own inner perspective, we are always seeing it as composed of objects; of beings in-themselves. By analogy with our own inner consciousness, however, we may infer that some of the objects “out there” that we interact with may actually have an inner world like our own. When I look in a mirror at my own body and I have a sense that my consciousness resides inside of that reflected mass, so too I may have the sense that there exist objects in my world that possess inner minds like my own, and thus that the world outside of me is populated by other beings-for-themselves; or self-reflective consciousnesses.

Sartre defines a being-for-itself as “being what it is not and not being what it is.”[xiv] Thus, if I regard others in my world as beings-for-themselves, I suppose that they are unstable and unpredictable because they possess inner, secret lives from which I am cut off. They have consciousness and the freedom to make choices. A being-for-itself possesses an inner mind that undergoes transformation and change by initiating projects; it flees away from its current, present state of being in the pursuit of goals. A being-for-itself, in other words, is the kind of freely choosing and aspiring consciousness that incessantly projects away and ahead of itself, moving forward into an uncertain future. It never rests satisfied with what it is, and always pursues what it is not. As such, recalling Bordo’s remarks, it has hidden, inner “moral and emotional sensibilities” that need to be treated with consideration.

While objectification is a seemingly necessary part of the process by which human beings recognize themselves, interact with one another and by which they build their worlds, a troubling issue is apparent. If I always encounter the beings in my world from the outside, then they always appear objectified to me as beings-in-themselves. Likewise, if another being-for-itself is to encounter me, I will become objectified in his or her eyes as a foreign thing; a being-in-itself. Hegel noted this issue and saw it as the initiating confrontation that leads to a “life-and-death struggle”[xv] between human consciousnesses. In confronting one another, two consciousnesses engage in mutual objectification, trying to solidify and fix the essence of the other and to deny its autonomy. We cast the other as a thing that is outside of us, which we contemplate and thus make into an object of our own reflective consciousness. This “trial by death”[xvi] kills the dynamic and lively inner nature of the other, and consequently we must, it seems, always come to treat others as things-in-themselves, since we must always come to know them from the outside and never from the inner perspective of their own conscious awareness.

In the world of cinema, this process is especially pronounced. By its very nature, the cinema is a visual medium, displaying images (usually accompanied by sounds) that are intended to be looked at and reflected upon by audiences. While some of the finest and most moving films are those that attempt to convey the inner emotions and sensibilities of the characters depicted, by virtue of the fact that audiences are spectators who approach films from the “outside,” the objectification of characters seems to be an inevitability. And while it may be the case that the actual human beings who portray characters in film are beings-for-themselves ­— after all, they are always more than just the characters that they play — it does seem that once performances are completed and recorded in a final form, they become fixed and stable, and so pass over into the realm of the in-itself. If this is so, what sense can it possibly make to complain about the “objectification” of women, men or anyone else portrayed in the media? Furthermore, if objectification is a mechanism implicated in the very way that we situate ourselves in the world, why should we even be concerned with overcoming it?


[i] For instance: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” [1975] Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Routledge, 1983); Linda Williams, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Elizabeth A. Brunner, “Impotence, Nostalgia, and Objectification: Patriarchal Visual Rhetoric to Contain Women.” Visual Culture and Gender, Vol. 8, 2013.

[ii] Mulvey, p. 843.

[iii] Bordo, p. 11.

[iv] Daniel Agliata and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn, “The Impact of Media Exposure on Male’s Body Image.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2004, pp. 7-22.

[v] Aristotle, Poetics. 1449a35.

[vi] This is the first mention of what has come to known as the “superiority theory” of laughter. See: John Moreall, Taking Laughter Seriously. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).

[vii] Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, in Three Complete Novels: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugenie de Franval. (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 210.

[viii] Simone de Beauvoir, “Must We Burn Sade?” The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1980), p. 27.

[ix] Bordo, p. 11.

[x] This is a point made by Hannah Arendt in her classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism where she argues that the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags were made possible by the antecedent “preparation of living corpses.” (p. 447). Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Inc., 1976.) It is also a main thesis in: Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002).

[xi] This is the inward turn first described by Socrates/Plato in Phaedo, 66a.

[xii] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, A.V. Miller (trans.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. §177.

[xiii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Hazel Barnes (trans.) New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. p. 28

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Hegel, § 187.

[xvi] Ibid.