Almost a year ago I posted a write-up called Sisyphus and the Punk Rock. I've re-visited that idea for bourgeois purposes: college admissions essays.
The history of a civilization can be found in the history of its language. A society develops around its knowledge, which is articulated through its language, which becomes concrete in thinking itself. Humans act based on their desires, they desire on the basis of their thoughts, they think based on their language.
The word “barbarian” can be traced back to the ancient Greek word bárbaros. The "bar-bar" represents the impression of random sounds one gets upon hearing a language he or she does not understand. To be the barbarian was to be the stutterer, the one who could not master the language of the polis, of the city. This was a person defined with contempt. The stutterer—the foreigner of inside and outside—lacked logos and was denied the right to discourse. Aristotle defined man as the reasonable animal, humanity exercised through logos. This non-man was excluded from discourse, from reason and law, and represented the opposite to Aristotle’s ideal.
A virus is nothing but a command to repeat itself, manifested in DNA or RNA encased in a protective sheath. The only life a virus has is its own ability to carry out the orders to perpetuate itself. When a virus invades a cell, the cell is compelled to obey the order.
My fingers hit these keys. A series of lines, worms, faceless bodies. Sounds emerge from my mouth. Bar-bar.
Is it the “I” that speaks, or a language virus?
It’s hard to see over a rock you’re constantly trying to force upward. None of these blind, desperate kids can. No one’s there to tell you that you were born 20, 30 years too late. And you’re willing to kid yourself, just for an identity.
This is the story of Sisyphus and the Punk Rock.
The infected cell is compelled to obey the orders encoded in nucleic acid. To write or speak is to give orders. To recognize and understand the words is to acknowledge these orders. Symptoms of infection. And there is no way out: even to self-consciously refuse these commands, we are still operating under their constraint. They’ve created a gray world of symbolic representation to work through in the pursuit of life.
The barbarians were not only the non-Greeks, but the Greeks who spoke Greek crudely; foreigners within their own city, the primitives who the language virus left behind. The commands of language did not resound so fully, sharply, or invariably as they do with me, and presumably everyone else in a society as immersed in language as ours (the virus has completely incorporated itself into its host). That moment when we see a tree or a sunset before we label it a tree or sunset and call it beautiful has been reduced to a millisecond at most in our synaptic processes. The language virus shrinks our Nows to inconceivable nothings. However, the barbarian could evade the orders of language in ways our vocabularies won’t allow us to.
Barbarism in that sense is seemingly a dead art. However, there are more commands to be evaded: the ones issued by society itself. Much like the Greeks’ determination of one’s social status based on mastery of language, our society holds its people to certain standards that, unmet, produce today’s barbarians. The orders are present and vivid—there is a bastardization of the circle of life that is impressed on a child the day they enter school up through their midlife crisis. You will go to school, go to work, breed, and die.
Contained within the concept of logos is not only discourse, reason, and language, but law and order. The barbarian of today is still outside the city walls, the streets paved with logos. Logos is at the service of power, and submission to order is defined as reasonable. The discourse of logos isolates all those who do not speak its language, leveling the differences, to return finally to monologue.
Living outside commands and orders, the barbarians are seen as a bums and degenerates. They have not assimilated the self-identifying symbols of success—a house, a marriage, a job—and are thus seen as unsuccessful. There are bums and degenerates who fit the definition of barbarian. And yet, many of those I know who have chosen to take their life into their own hands—not allowing the social parasite to feed off them, and not allowing themselves to feed off it—are living some of the best existences I could ever hope to have.
I don’t want my legacy to be manifested in my possessions and the contributions I make to a company. I’m not sure anyone’s legacy is in those things. But I want my life to be focused on the experiences that do matter—adventures, discoveries, creations, relationships. The accumulation of symbols of success seems like mere distraction.
And all I can hope at this point is that it’s not empty idealism. What I write are words. While obviously symptoms of a language virus, I hope that at least the general meaning is from inside of me, and not delusions of another virus: the Punk Rock.
In the past, I’ve kidded myself, as thousands before me have, thinking I can find the panacea to hopelessness in another virus. Each generation a new body of youth searches for a counterculture, only to emerge from the chrysalis of idealism fat, rich, and melding their behinds to the groove in Jerry Rubin’s throne. As they draw closer and closer to the top of this hill, gravity takes hold of its inevitable victory and the Punk Rock sails down. The most common response seems to be to cast off all ideas of resistance as empty and descend on an opposite path.
When I was 13 I could let punk speak for me, but I haven’t been able to get excited over Black Flag or the Bad Brains since I realized that I was listening to the voices of ghosts. “There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and that life’s end is death,” wrote Robinson Jeffers in his 1937 poem “The Purse-Seine”. The Dead Kennedys poster that’s been hanging in my room for about four years now has a copy of that poem pinned over East Bay Ray’s two-dimensional figure. I wasn’t consciously acknowledging the decline of my faith in punk when I hung those words it there—the location was merely convenient—but given thought it seems appropriate.
I’m convinced punk was something real once. By a unanimous account of everybody who was actually there, it was an organic phenomenon. People found something in themselves that was manifested in playing music in a way where you could express all your passion with as little musical skill as required. Now, the self-identity as a punk amounts to a symptom of viral invasion. The expression within a person of forces originating outside.
The virus replicates itself. It becomes the host.
And yet, I sometimes find myself staring at this boulder. I’ll let its continually rotating surface hypnotize me into participating in pseudo-barbarism. But much of the time I am able to snap myself out of it and let this Punk Rock roll down into the valley below. Because barbarism doesn’t live in punk anymore.
So who writes this page? My words? Empty ideals that I’ve appropriated, or that have appropriated me? My real voice isn’t in viruses. It’s not in anything outside—it’s in the barbarian. That barbarian is somewhere inside me, and I continue to search for it.