We will delve 20,000 leagues into the mind of a madman today.
In recent years a phenomenon involving lone, armed deranged citizens firing on crowds in certain benign public places has sparked media debate regarding gun control, mental illness, the second amendment, liberals, conservatives, yadayada.
These assaults usually take place in suburbia- predominantly white and middle class schools, shopping malls, movie theaters. This peachy atmosphere is stained with blood and the media reports another tragedy- “senseless” and “insane,” “meaningless violence.”
[an acknowledgment- without the backdrop of desperation, poverty, and the overt breakdown of the family-psyche that is seen in the ghettos of America, where we accept/ignore the bleeding young people and war-zone violence, this sort of suburban violent madness makes for quite the news spectacle- while we have been more or less conditioned to ignore the regular violence and regular, accepted insanity in the “Other” parts of the city.]
so this rupture of violence invading the middle american consciousness must mean something.
Today we will see that this form of violence (‘the lone wolf’ if you will) very much does have a meaning and structural causes. just like the violence we turn a blind eye to and accept in the communities of color. Suburban violence, in fact, has a VERY IMPORTANT meaning for us to digest and begin discussing in our turbulent country.
This is System of a Down.
They are a playlist-staple of weirdo teenage America…I was quite a fan in my day. I used to be one of those head-banger kids, with ratty clothes and a careless façade, lurking in the shadowy breezeways and stained cement walls in the outskirts of my middle school. An older brother of a girl I used to go around with played this song in his big studio headphones, the guillotine heavy riffs echoing in his dreads, behind the gurgling of a giant smoke-filled bong. He sold dimes to middle-schoolers and worked at the mall… we would listen to this band as we loitered in the food court, all dyed hair and skinny jeans, pooling change to buy dr. pepper. Takes me back. I would listen to this song, alone in my room, after school, because I had few friends, no hobbies, and no extracurriculars. I hadn’t heard anything calling me in life; except the vague, psychotic noise of heavy metal bands. “Alone, in my desolate room”- the lyrics of the song speak to the audience most directly.
Alone in my room – The feeling of the song, the frustration, the vague ache and schizo-silliness into roaring senseless explosions. This feeling is an epidemic in America- this band is quite popular.
A new archetype of the 21st century: the loners; the weirdos, the outcasts; the shady loser. Brought to infamy and the nightly news in recent years as the perpetrator of senseless spree shootings- you know. We narrowly evaded this scenario in my high school- a student was plotting, the administration caught wind of it, he was thwarted. I knew the kid- had been to his house (actually he lived in a small trailer, with one parent who I literally never saw.) He had been pushed into tragedy, the eponymous tragedy of our generation, public massacres.
Dr. Metzl, physician, psychiatrist, and sociologist, has suggested we take a look at our culture and social structure to find the roots of why people feel this way- of why this obviously social problem is repeatedly happening all over in western countries. Indeed, the problem is evident in the very way the mainstream media reports the violence; always through our ideological framework (allowing us only the conventional, safe questions of ubiquitous guns and mental illness of individuals); never a questioning of society itself, a society which produces this alienation. This ideological coverage is only another manifestation of the same problem in our society- did you catch that? The post-massacre diagnostic is illustrative of the very disconnect from any positive concept of “society” in our media-lexicon, we simply don’t have the vocabulary to make sense of it- it is a problem coming from the very roots of capitalism, that capitalism consequently cannot solve. (Hence the ‘senselessness’ and meaningless brutality of these events when only questioned within our ideology.)
What we need to know is: why are these kids mentally sick?
This recurring news piece is not going anywhere… at least as long as our society remains the way it is.Let’s explore this dilemma-with a cultural artifact of our society (postmodern, hypercapitalist America) to see how this madness, this feeling, this need to lash out is created. I identify with the archetype of the lonewolf, the shady loser, the loner. I was that guy in high school. [I am not arguing that the song inspires the violence- I am analyzing how, like the song, the violent madness comes from and embodies our society against itself. Oh god. I’m not saying the violence is art, either. But both the heavy metal song and the violent madness SHARE THE SAME FEELING and come from the SAME society.]
In fact, the song is about this very problem.
Where does this feeling come from? System of a Down has something to say. Let’s take a look at their music video.
- First things first, let’s note the 65 MILLION VIEWS on this video. That’s enough to register this as more than just a fringe, uncommon, avant-garde music-text. This is a full blown piece of American civilization- ask any highschooler in suburbia, these guys are a big deal. A social phenomenon, apparently a lot of people feel like they do. Screaming and headbanging, yeah.
The video begins-‘good evening, I’m Eric Olosk.’ A familiar scene to us all- the talking head of American news and media. Spinning grey globe in the background. Whats on the news, tonight, Eric?
- NATO forces bombing Serbia and Kosovo- our western capitalist democracy spreading over the globe in the name of humanitarian intervention; our time-worn strategy of bombing-for-peace. One of our countless imperialist interventions after a regime-change operation fell into bloody ethnocidal war. Oh boy, that really doesn’t make me wanna pop a fuckin’ Vicodin at all. What else you got, Eric?
- “an unidentified man is being held by the FBI for suspected links to last month’s biological virus deaths…” in the very video we have a reference to homicidal public behavior… something similar to the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subways. A public massacre. This character (pictured in the background) will feature later in the video as our spree-killer, our madman.
- Local news: the tradition of American media, after bombarding the viewer with images and soundbites of catastrophe, war, terror, in a senseless, decontextualized rambling stream, is to present us with a little goodnight pill, a bit of toned down, nice news: “a dog named hero has been awarded a grand prize…”
It’s here where the Real erupts forth from our pundit. The truth is vomited from his psychotic scowl as he describes the commercial, corporate nature of the news, the capitalist ideological framework of how we are interpolated in the world as Americans. “commercial sensationalism…” we’re on a ratings system over here, folks! Our man loses his shit as he screams about impending climate catastrophe and soul-numbing alienation- caused by our “global economy.” It’s all there in the video, wrapped up nice and quick for mass consumption.
“Are you happy?! COME ON… I WORK FOR THE SYSTEMMM!!!”
And the heavy riffs burst forth. Sugar opens with the chorus-
“The Kombucha Mushroom people, Sitting around all day.
Who will believe you, who will believe you, let your mother pray!”
The band head-bangs at breakneck pace and jumps in front of a bullet-ridden American flag. We see a flash of an image of people marching in files- in a subway or underground tunnel. Workers. They are all dressed exactly the same, keeping their heads down. The masses. We see ourselves, we all get up everyday and live the Same Life, the Same Day. We wake up, get in our car. Go to work, go to school… (Why? What do we do here? how does this connect to my life? The world?) and we drive home. Everyday. Except Saturday and Sunday. If you’re one of the lucky ones.
The chorus ends and we enter the first verse with a senselessly repetitive bassline, a crazy simple tension thronging in the back as the guitar plucks a silly staccato lick. The verses are a narrative- we enter the inside of our madman. Before the verse starts we see a specific image:
This interlude is accompanied with the flashing image of a good old American pie- the words ‘Aspartame kills’ orbit around the screen (1:17). This motif will return several times before each verse, where we delve back into the madman’s inner narrative. Why? Why Aspartame? Because it’s a supposedly good, healthy substitute for Sugar. An incredibly, unnaturally sweet powder that leaves you sick. The sweetness and comfort of American life (symbolized by the good ol’ cherry pie) will leave one with twisting, coursing coils in our guts- cancer. Aspartame is poison. The deception of capitalism is embodied by Sweetness = Sickness. The image vanishes and we are back to the band. Sugar!
The singer abandons his usual lower shout, heard in other songs and the chorus, with the confused, desperate timbre of a madman:
“I’m not there all the time, you know,
Some people some people some people call it insane,
They call it inSANE”
Self-evident dissociation and alienation. The attempt of a hurting soul to tell us what it feels like- the “not being there.” The verse is sung along with an alternative character- a four-star general mouths the words along with the music- the timbre of the madman becomes the shouting of a drill sergeant. Marching soldiers behind him. Who is really insane? War going on as the narrative of the madman tells us about his feelings- the connection between the image and the words? Our society. War abroad and psychosis at home.
“I play Russian roulette everyday, a mansport,
With a bullet called life,
Yeah momma, called life!”
The next lines are accompanied and sung along with by a stripper or a prostitute. Her precarious existence is embodied in the lyrics- the chance of Russian roulette. We are all sell outs in capitalism. A woman is metonymically equated with a “mansport.” When your life is not your own, you exercise your lordship over others.
The Russian roulette is a paradox- we all live the same life, the same day, every day; but a certain anxiety allows the monotony to go unfelt. The precariousness of employment on the market, the risk of being fired on a whim, the strain of competition to avoid the chopping block, the struggle to stay afloat, render a certain panic, a specific feeling of tremendous anxiety and disenfranchisement in our suppressed awareness- the threat of unemployment and homelessness keeps our mouths shut, keeps us off the picket line. “Yeah, momma, call it life. This is normal? This can’t be as bad as I feel. Why do I feel this way? There must be something wrong with me… doc, give me pills!”
The lyrics build up- the delivery is frantic;
“You know every time I try to go, where I really want to be, it’s already where I am!”
Strange lyrics- the expression of a disjointed consciousness, again the “not really there” feeling, communicating a failure-to-be, a disconnect between where “I” am and where “I” really want to be… the repeated use of I in different locations communicates to us that our narrator is dissociated- the “I” is not the same as the “me” who speaks. The screams of a confused soul, doesn’t know who or what he is. The delivery of the lyrics tells us of the obvious anxiety associated with the attempt at communication.
Along with these lines, some imagery of packed escalators at the Mall, that preeminently American consumerist social formation. An image of 3 businessmen in a dark room- their drab pale skin and quiet conversation. A flash close up of one of them, singing the frantic lyrics. A psychotic scream charges into the chorus. SUUGGGARR!!
“Who can believe you, who can believe you, let your mother pray!!”
Who is out there to hear your pain? Who would listen and not judge, not take advantage of our weakness? Aren’t we all responsible for ourselves? Who would listen, and not tell you to “suck it up, man! Pull yourself together!” … by the bootstraps. We believe in personal responsibility- even when this society has prevented me from becoming a person. (I am split in pieces- disjointed ‘I’ and ‘me’- the one who lives life and the one who lives in the ideology that clouds us from properly recognizing this life. We are out of touch)
We see the American Pie and the Aspartame again. The second verse returns with the madman’s desperate voice. He tells us about the nice piece he just bought:
“I got a gun the other day, from Sako, it’s cute, small,
Fits right in my pocket, yeah, fits right in my pocket.”
The lyrics are accompanied by an old woman on a park bench. We see her pull a magnum from her purse. She got herself a cute, shiny grandma-pistol.
Death is just another commodity- a specialty on the market. A gun is just a toy when nothing is serious, when everything is not Real. A solution waiting for shaking hands. If you have enough money, life and death are yours. Our madman is easily equipped and weaponized. What is is his intention? Maybe he doesn’t even know. He continues to tell us about his life:
“My girl, you know, she lashes out at me sometimes and I just fucking kick her and then,
She’s okay. Ohhh baby.”
Obvious cruelty and misogyny; to be seen everywhere on television and Hollywood. Our narrator lacks feeling and empathy- he resorts to violence to solve emotional problems, being unable to open up and communicate his inner self- because there is no one there. He rotates wildly between extreme emotions (FUCKING kick her and then… ohh baby…) rage to tenderness in the same line.
The words are accompanied by a sooty police officer, kneading his baton. He sings along with the words with a jaunt and a little dance. Riots and fires in the background. Protesters beaten without empathy. For a flash we see the police officer in a white wife-beater shirt, blood and dirt on his face as he flashes his fangs with an angry scowl.
The last lines of the verse/psychotic narrative are extremely interesting. They are screamed in an uncontrolled delivery, they are unleashed. Listen closely (2:17) What does our madman tell us?
“People are always chasing me down,
Trying to push my face to the ground,
Where all they do IS SUCK OUT MY MOTHERFUCKING BRAINS!”
Suggaarrrarrrr!!! You know you feel this shit.
These last lines are apparently non-sequitur… as if relating to us his violence towards his girlfriend launches him into a psychotic break…
A common feature of schizophrenia and many formations of psychosis is the sensation that some agency, some big “Other” is out to get you- restless paranoia and sleepless nights which push suffering souls to the brinks of the collective fantasy we call reality. Some alien apparatus is after our madman, people are chasing him down. Trying to push his face to the ground- dehumanize, humiliate, castrate him. Then- suck out his brainzz. This Other, nameless and faceless, just general “people,” is turning him into a zombie.
Marx said “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” We, the masses of our society, are the zombies, the walking dead. The Never-lived. I’m reminded of another piece of americana-
“I try to sleep and I hear those mortgages gnawing in the night like rats
In the corn crib
I want to shoot somebody but I don’t know who
We’ll do something, you wait and see
We don’t have to stand in this skin game if we’re free Americans.”
(Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes)
What could be more powerful than to operate namelessly? Who deserves our anger and frustration? How do we shoot “capitalism,” how do we shoot society?
Our ideology, that of the individual, affects us most acutely in the expression of our unconscious- that is, we express ideology unconsciously (hence this song and video- and art in general). It is our reaction to the world. The Truest thing we’re capable of. So when a 16 year old with his dad’s gun kills random targets at schools, or goes to the mall in a dangerous state of mind, or decides to shatter the collective fantasy by shooting up a movie theater- who or what is he shooting? How is this action a solution to this feeling? In the only way we are allowed to imagine- an individual solution. He does not reach out to others- “Who would believe you, who would…” but he must take action. How? The video gives us the scenario very clearly-
The chorus comes back around. We see the marching masses. Then, a switch. The outro. The crawling of the bass is the tension and mounting anxiety of the madman. The singer takes a knee and utters a silent prayer. At 2:40 the guitar crunches and the images change, back to the face of the madman shown in the news broadcast, the bio terrorist. He is being interrogated by the FBI, a psychotic smile on his confused face. The lyrics in the voice of the caught and cornered madman:
In my desolate room,
… killed everyone
I’m away forever
…But IM FEELING BETTER.”
The timbre of these lines alternates between a gut wrenching scream of the psychotic outbreak, the violence orchestrated upon the bodies of the Other, other people who are seemingly Not people. People who stroll by, their own heads to the ground, afraid and embarrassed to meet eyes. Not saying hello. Just going to work. What is there to say, anyway? Just objects in view. But without others and their subjectivity, there is nothing to ensure that I am really real. When others do not recognize me or our alive-ness, then there is no guarantee to my being. Other people are the connection between my life-fantasy, and reality… reality is between us, that is, we agree to recognize a Thing (by making a word) and assure ourselves “this is reality.” Without others, I lose touch with reality. I disconnect. “I’m not there, all the time, you know..”
Our madman whispers “…killed everyone.”
The violence is an obvious release, an unclenching, an expression of the unconscious. He has sublated, superceded his own unspeakable feelings- rendered in physicality the feeling he previously just could-not-put-his-finger-on… the feeling of “not being there…” Now that he can sit back and see his own self, see what he is through his violent work, his conscious gaze returns through the interrogation. Frantically, he chants in unprecedented anxiety and regret and disgust and nerve-splitting, soul-ripping recognition. The song ends:
“How do I feel? What do I say? FUCK YOU, it all goes away
How do I feel? What do I say? FUCK YOU, it all goes away
How do I feel? What do I say? FUCK YOU, it all goes away
How do I feel? What do I say? FUCK YOU, it all goes away!
In the end it all goes away
In the end it all goes away
In the end it allgoesaway
He comes back to himself with mixed terror and ecstasy (2:52). We see images of gas-mask terrors, burning fires, a gallows drop, riots, more gallows, genocide. A mall escalator. Soldiers, gallows, a screaming businessman.
Apocalypse in a mushroom cloud.
A specific and unique form of madness is involved in this form of public violence. More often than not these are not calculated, heavily premeditated orchestrations, they are not the same kind of insanity as serial killer style-murder. They are explosions- the violence probably accompanied by much inner anguish, the gun held with shaking hands, tears down his cheeks. He is killing himself when he is killing Them. If only we could meet eyes and recognize one another my anxiety would ease. But we are unable to feel that, we don’t possess the vocabulary of our suffering. We just can’t say what it is. The violence is a shattering that follows a gradual cutting loose, or a repeated failure to connect, from/to sensible reality, shared with others… When you look out your window at an alien planet- look at other people and you don’t understand how they don’t see that they are not looking at a human being, a real person. Just a simulation of one. A guess at normality. And vice versa. But this is “normal” now. This is the Real that our “normal” creates. These public sprees can no longer be seen as an anomaly– they are a part of everyday civilization.
It takes strength to face life- when we have never had the chance to really feel life. When we have never had the chance to even read about it. When you wake up in the middle of the night, gripped in negative ecstasy, and the fact that you don’t know what this is- what you are doing here right now, alive. When “alive” was never defined against anything and never experienced, where does this tension go? How could we continue to struggle against such a foundational strain? We are the Never-Lived. Who will save us?
There is no need to panic. In those moments of ominous recognition raining down on you, just remember that you are the world, you’re a piece of nature. everything that ever happened in history, social and natural, has brought-us-all-to-be. We belong here, together. we live for a reason.
It takes strength to let your guard down- to drop the conditioning to be “normal” and really face the question of this senseless, meaningless life that our society has carved out of wild, rich existence.
It takes strength to reach out- it takes strength to cry.
It takes strength to feel.
“It takes strength to be gentle and kind.”
It takes strength to listen to an other human being- to recognize your self in them, your self that you just can’t put a finger on.
The only thing that can cure this form of madness is a revolution. A massive coming-together of sentient beings who are alive, really breathing, really feeling, really conscious, really living for a spiritual purpose- who had the strength to say no to toxic, meaningless, cheap, intoxicating poison- strength to stand for change and empathy and humanity, life and beauty and the MIRACLE OF OUR BEING ALIVE- in the face of a bourgeoisie heavily invested in our never realizing it.
A revolution that has less to do with seizing the means of production and everything to do with seizing the fantasy- redefining life.
Come together- right now, over me! (: Peace and love. all together now.