Pain, as Elaine Scarry notes in The Body in Pain, is enigmatic; language cannot adequately express it. Consequently, the experience of pain separates an individual from others through the sheer silence which it imposes. There is no way to understand another's pain, just as there is no way another can understand your pain. Scarry goes further than this, however, noting that pain "does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned" (4). In this model, the individual loses the very parameters (imagined or otherwise) that construct subjectivity. S/he "falls" into a pre-discursive realm of noise, a term Jacques Attali defines as "a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission" (26). At it's most extreme, Attali notes, "noise is a source of pain" (27), rather than the effect of the body's loss of "being." As a physical force, "noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder" (26). Although neglecting the intricacies of noise itself, and the fact that it can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways, Attali's argument here is useful because he seems to be reading noise as a potentially empowering force that can be used (in Scarry's terms) both as a weapon against a prisoner of war and as a tool used by the prisoner him/herself to undermine the powers of the torturer.
I would argue that, while Scarry's reading of pain fits quite easily into analyses of physical violence - methods to silence the human body's ability to represent itself to others - her reading elides the very sonorous forces that are emitted by the body in the state of asignification. This is not to say Scarry ignores the sounds of pain in her analysis of the "unmaking" of the world. On the contrary, voices, screams, cries, and singing are all continually present, both in the actions that produce pain and in the emotional effects that reveal pain to the exterior world. In fact, she goes so far as to say, "the translation of pain into power is ultimately a transformation of body into voice" (45); and that the goal of violent actions is to destroy the body's ability to mark itself by negating the voice's position within that body. Nevertheless, while Scarry clearly recognizes the importance of sound to the articulation of subjectivity, she is unwilling to locate this "self" in anything other than a "voice" that bears a synecdotal relationship to writing. As Avital Ronell notes, "signs which bypass the voice continue to produce a metaphysical crisis" (61), which is to say that, in Scarry's attempt to write pain onto violence, she cannot seem to surmount the obstacle which the sounds emitted from a body (not simply the words that one speaks) configure in this discursive framework. This, I believe, is where music becomes specifically useful in expanding Scarry's assessment of pain. Attali notes that "music is a channelization of noise" (Attali 26), aligning the effect of music as both "a source of pain" and a narrative form that enacts another violence, namely a "mapping of difference" ( deLauretis 121), which marks and orders bodies and identities within a discursive order. The problem with music as a narrative agent, then, is not that (as it is traditionally represented) it fails to be specific but that it exceeds the confines of most narrative maps and expresses much of the pain ("noise is a source of pain") that such discourses strive to conceal. In other words, music is less tied to direct signifier-signified correlations, if only because the "grain of the voice" (as Barthes describes it) or the musical experience cannot be wholly contained within a written formula but is only available through the act of listening. This open framework for music is not absolute, for oftentimes musical structures and conventions take the place of the music itself, or reduce it to an already programmed input-output system that subdues any openings that music might offer. NIN's The Downward Spiral, however, is different, principally because the theme of pain is connected with the equally enigmatic interplay between human sensations and technologically-produced sounds.
The principle theme in Reznor's music is the disintegration of the "self," both in the form of a violence enacted upon one's body by external forces and as a seething desire to eradicate one's own subjectivity in a nihilistic push toward extinction. While these are not new topics for pop music (Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode, and Nirvana all come to mind) Reznor's approach is unique because he positions his own body (figured musically as the voice) in opposition to the synthesized and digitized music that frames it. Arthur Kroker notes that "until now, sound has usually been in the background. Digital music is different. It foregrounds sound by making problematic the energy field of noise, reenchanting the ear and projecting complex sound objects outward into imaginary shapes, volumes, and liquid flows" (Spasm 47). While he is speaking specifically of music by Steve Gibson and himself, which is much closer in shape and definition to the music of Skinny Puppy and Ministry than that of NIN, his conception that digital music has led to the rethinking of the perception of objects, bodies, and their corresponding sounds is congruent with what is at work in Reznor's music. Because digital technology repositions "organic" and mechanic sound within a computerized framework, the link between performer, instrument, and listener becomes uncertain, for the referent cannot be fully defined spatially in the way a work of Beethoven can be imagined according to the position of the orchestra. As a result, the "organic" connotations of the voice and those of the guitar, bass, and drums (which rock and roll codes align with the body of the musician) are merged with the computerized framework that positions every sound within an uncertain and undefined "cyberspace." It is this very uncertainty which Reznor employs as the guiding force behind his musical narrative. By exploiting the blurring of human and machinic sounds -- such as the sampled torture sounds on "Mr. Self Destruct" (which Reznor took from George Lucas' science fiction film, THX 1138<4>); and the artificial heartbeat that opens "Closer" -- Reznor is articulating in musical terms the very ambiguity which structures such synergistic movements.
Eric Weisbard of The Village Voice writes that The Downward Spiral is "a themed set of songs about a horribly alienated protagonist who tries sex, religion, drugs, and whatnot, takes his life, then sings a song and a half from the beyond" (83). There are two figures in this drama - I and You - although to what extent these figures are unified characters is hard to gather. Although I is the narrator and controls what is said, that figure must depend upon You (embodied in the music itself) for the ability to gain access to speech. The tension that results is the musical and narrative structure, both aggressive and passive, projective and abjected. The album begins with the sounds of a whip cracking onto a grunting human body. From this point on, the narrator weaves his own personal search for redemption across denunciations of god, religion, politics, phallic power, sexuality, and violence, all of which seem coupled with an insistent desire to break beyond the boundaries which restrict bodies, ideologies, and subjectivities. These themes, while evoked lyrically, are mirrored musically in the continual blurring of "natural" and "artificial" sounds, suggesting a technological setting that figures the body of the narrator at odds with the very industrial sounds which surround him. The best example of this is the song "Closer." The music begins with 20 seconds of synthesized heartbeats; then the principle rhythmic theme (centered around the bass note of C) emerges simultaneous with the vocals, as if to surround them. Reznor sings, "you let me violate you / you let me desecrate you," which seems aggressive, yet positions You as the agent in control of I's actions. Soon after, Reznor sings, "help me I broke apart my insides," which suggests both a desire to connect with the outside world and an overwhelming fear that I is losing its "self," is merging with everything else. The need to affirm subjectivity is crucial, most expressed in the brutal lines, "I want to fuck you like an animal / I want to feel you from the insides," which reverse I's status from passive to aggressive because it violently configures You as other. What is more, there is a decided musical shift at the word "animal." The primary rhythm is supplanted by a more aggressive, grinding bass which, while maintaining the common theme, drops it down a fifth (to an F), in order to reflect the agentival shift from You to I that the line connotes. While the assertion to "fuck you like an animal" suggests an empowered "self," the following line, "I want to feel you from the inside," implies a certain tension in this shift, for it posits You as container of the very thing which will empower I and subsequently resolve the musical conflict. This tension is further delineated when the narrator says, "My whole existence is flawed," reinforcing the inability of that violent act to fully reveal the "inside" of You, followed by the line, "you get me closer to god," at which point the music returns to its initial theme, although now the music rises, in a transcendental-like move, in a move that corresponds musically to the verbal articulation of "god."
This narrative can be read as a desire for the self to find its significance within another's body. That the key word in this song is "fuck" indicates to what extent this acquisition of power <5> is sexually determined. To specifically use sexuality as the agent for the acquisition of power in the chorus closely aligns the narrative with psychoanalytic theory, where the Oedipal desire to unify one's "self" is manifest in the drive to incorporate the other within one's own body, thereby "fixing" the "lack" the other's presence reveals. This is most clearly expressed in the line "you get me closer to god," where the word "god" acts as an objet à, an "encounter with the real" which stands in for an idealized and totalized "whole" that cannot be expressed in "the network of signifiers" that construct language (Lacan 52). Lacan, in fact, notes that, "The gods belong to the field of the real" (45), suggesting that one could read I's god as a metaphor for an inexpressible field of immanence - a place longed for yet never attained within representational boundaries. Rather than configuring a movement beyond the limitations of language, I is locked into a spiraling fluctuation between the words "animal" and "god," between the desire to express one's own subjectivity by aggressively asserting physical dominance over another and the desire to break beyond the limitations imposed upon the subject by the physical.
The desire to articulate pain, moreover, emerges musically in the tension between violently asserting oneself and the inability to move to a space beyond this assertion. When the word god institutes a move back to the initial bass note of C, the aggressive "animalistic" movement is thwarted by a return to an initial movement before the pain of the narrator is fully expressed. This cycle of expression and repression repeats itself, albeit with slight variations, in the second verse and chorus; yet at the second god, as the music returns to the initial movement, the lyrics abruptly end. There follows an extended musical section where the themes of aggression and repression are enacted by driving the music into higher and higher registers, only to fall back within a continual circulation around the major theme. While the vocals do return at one point, along with a hint of the "animalistic" chorus, they are buried beneath a large mass of technological force, suggesting the overriding power which technology holds in this narrative, for it is only through the electronic music that the body itself can find its significance. Nevertheless, even the music cannot finally "break through" its own structure, and sputters to a conclusion by repeating the major theme on a decidedly recognizable sound of a keyboard. The body of the narrator (and Reznor's own body) is positioned alongside the technology of the music, thereby renouncing the transcendental yearning for jouissance, while nevertheless positing a clear delineation between organic and mechanical bodies <6>.
In this instance, technology is configured as the overriding musical force of the composition. This force is coded initially according to the lyrics, yet once the lyrics are exhausted technology takes over, driving the narrative beyond the representational limitations of language. The body of the protagonist, in other words, by desiring to get "closer to god" and hence closer to the power over life and death, is fused with the mechanized body of the musical apparatus, which then incorporates I into the multiplicity of data that marks its shape. While this desire for technological transformation works on several levels within the music, it gains its impact in late 20th century culture's fixation upon technological objects as talismanic tools for material and psychical gain. As Scott Bukatman notes, "Technological spaces and objects prevail in the public imagination and serve as loci for the anxieties that arise in response to rapid change" (4). He goes on to say that "Technology always creates a crisis for culture" (4), which is founded upon the faith society places in machines for material comfort as well as metaphysical completion.
While many see this technological dependence negatively - as a potential threat to the loss of human agency - Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein see it as acting within a concept of "humanity" that is historically determined. In their view, our current cultural situation is significant because "we finally encounter the end of (human) history and the beginning of virtual history," where "the delirium of the recline of western civilization is experienced as both the ecstasy of crash culture and the catastrophe of our burn-out in digital culture" (Data Trash 2). By aligning this technological transformation of culture with the fall of "western civilization," virtual history can be read as an anglophilic reaction to an ever-increasing multicultural environment where the dominance of European and North American men (one of whom being Trent Reznor) is in jeopardy. Kroker and Weinstein find their "theory of the virtual class" in what they term "the will to virtuality," which borrows from Nietzsche's "will to power," and "is grounded in the fascination with technology as a reaction-formation to the death wish" (163), an insistent desire to "trash" human flesh in favor of "virtualized flesh," which "can finally know itself as a pacific dreamland of violent irruptions: flickering from red to blue in the color spectrum as it searches for an infinite (technical) perfection that it will never attain" (36). To wholly embrace technology is to hope for a way out of our own bodies, to attain the frontier of the digital superhighway, a space which will finally destroy the limitations imposed upon us by our flesh. The problem, however, is that once the body enters this space, the same drives - the "death wishes," the fears, desires, and anxieties - will all retain their hold upon bodies (cyber or otherwise), and will continually force these "virtual" subjects into the same representational traps which limit their low-tech "wetware" counterparts. While Reznor's music inhabits this world of virtuality - he uses few identifiable instruments, except for the guitar <7> - he nevertheless cannot escape the musical structure that codifies and restricts movement toward a Heideggerian sense of "Being" or a Lacanian "Real." What sets Reznor apart from his industrial counterparts, however, is his awareness of this dilemma, the fact that he recognizes his inability to move "beyond" the musical codes in his possession. Rather than seeking to break down hegemonic codes, Reznor instead pushes them to their Oedipalized extremes, thereby foregrounding the anxiety at work in the production of narrative.
TrackBack URL: http://thelibrary.hauntedink.com/mt-tb.cgi/28