When the Death Drive Takes Over: the Libidinal in Joy Division and Amy Winehouse

By Cynthia Cruz

August 30, 2019

Ian Curtis performing live with Joy Division. Image courtesy of Getty.

In his essay, “No Longer the Pleasures: Joy Division” from Ghosts Of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology And Lost Futures, Mark Fisher argues that the band Joy Division, and its frontman, Ian Curtis, are libido-less. “No heat in Joy Division’s loins,” he writes, explaining:

Beyond Pop’s bipolar oscillation between evanescent thrill and frustrated     hedonism, beyond Jagger’s Miltonian Mephistopheleanism, beyond Iggy’s negated carny, beyond Roxy’s lounge lizard reptilian melancholy, beyond the pleasure principle altogether, Joy Division were the most Schopenhauerian of rock groups, so much so that they barely belonged to rock at all. Since they had so thoroughly stripped out rock’s libidinal motor—it would be better to say that they were, libidinally as well as sonically, anti-rock.

Though it’s clear Joy Division can’t be said to be of the same libidinal ilk as the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, or Roxy Music with their overt sexuality, to say that they are without libido isn’t quite right either. I would argue that Joy Division, and Ian Curtis in particular, are indeed a libidinal band. The word “libido” derives from the Latin term libidin meaning “lust” or ”desire” and is the term Freud used for describing all sexual energy, which, according to him, included the full breadth of human energy. This energy then, as Lacan says of desire, is not the final product but rather, an energy that clings to an object. This is the force that animates and drives Curtis’s being, his life, music, and his kinetic dancing. In the same essay, Fisher describes Curtis’s dancing as “disturbing-compelling hyper-charged stage trance spasms.” This depiction has an uncanny resemblance to that of his description of the libidinal in “And When the Groove is Dead and Gone,” his essay on Michael Jackson in which he writes “Dancing is always about the death drive, about the libidinal disciplining the body into unnatural postures and shapes.” One factor that makes Curtis’s performances so shocking is its extreme compression, the discipline and control, the forcing of the body into postures and movements that appear at once to be both violent and unnatural. To watch Curtis’s live performances is to watch a man overcome by an internal energy force.

In Fisher’s comparison between Joy Division and the other rock bands, he illuminates the different types of the libidinal. In the case of the performances of The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop, the libidinal is externalized. They carry out representations of what culture defines as sex. Like Madonna’s interpretations of sex, these simulations are transmitted from a libido-less blank slate, the professional, business (wo)man, performer to the masses who cobbles together cultural references of what sex looks like, then exhibits them onstage. In other words, the libidinal being performed is not a performer performing their internal state. When Madonna does sex, she relies on reductive stereotypes: the scantily clad female body writhing on the floor, the female mouth open in a pornographic “O.” We immediately recognize it for what it is.

But with Joy Division the libidinal is internalized, a force of overwhelming energy that cannot be contained. Rather than performing sex, Ian Curtis abandons himself to his own libidinal energies. What we see, then, is a man enacting his own desires and terrors. This is why his performances were, and remain, so astonishing to us. Without the interpretive buffer of cultural translation (his performance emanates from his own overwhelming affects and is not an interpretation of the idea of “sex” or the “libidinal”) we are witness to the violent effects of Curtis’s internal state, which was one of chaos and increasing agitation. Curtis suffered from depression, but rarely spoke of it. Instead, the terror and hopelessness were internalized, repressed, and they gained power. Like the difference between being forced to watch a close friend commit suicide and watching a stage actress perform the symbolic gestures that would translate this information, Curtis’s live performances were no performance at all but rather, Curtis as distillation. When he appears onstage, his fears, dread, passion, and fury are unleashed from within. That he repressed his affects beforehand is part of what made Curtis’s live performances so powerful. His control or jamming up helped increase his libidinal energy, resulting in the violence that animated his dancing.

This jamming up is similar to the libidinal energy exhibited by the band, The Jam, and specifically, by the performances of its lead singer, Paul Weller. In his essay “Going Overground,” Fisher writes of the British Mod band:

The Jam, like The Who before them, drew their power from an auto-destructive paradox: they were fueled by a frustration, a tension, a blocked energy, a jam. Discharging this tension in catharsis would destroy the very libidinal blockages on which the music depended—and this self-canceling logic of desire reached its necessary conclusion in The Who’s smashing of their instruments. Weller sang through a lockjaw of frustration, a rictus of rage and gum-chewing Mod cool, which meant that some of his best lines got lost, caught in his throat or spat out in unintelligible gobbets of dissatisfaction.

Fisher’s description of Weller’s libidinal energy as a clamped-down compression, an inarticulate source that loses its power once it is released vis a vis clarity, is comparable to Ian Curtis’s form of the libidinal—visceral, indistinct, and internal. In the same way you can recognize the libidinal in Weller’s compression of words to the point of inarticulateness, you can see in Curtis’s spastic, trance-like dancing a similar incoherency.

The compression of both Weller’s and Curtis’s bodies can be likened to the libidinal of the anorexic. Due in part to its lack of hips and breasts (superficial representations of sex or sexuality), the anorexic body is often imagined as being without desire. And yet, the act of refusing desire or, rather, the act of refusing the world in order to create a space for one’s yet unfulfilled desire, is, indeed a libidinal act. The anorectic’s body is the manifestation of unadulterated libidinal energy within the body. The anorexic starves her body of food, the result of which is a physique from which all that is unwanted or unneeded is removed. Like Curtis and Weller, the anorexic utilizes her body as a vessel through which her desire is performed.

Amy Winehouse. Image courtesy of Getty.

To watch musician Amy Winehouse perform her song “Love is a Losing Game” acoustically is to witness the pure libidinal—there is no space between Winehouse and her life, her lyrics, music or performance. She personifies the libidinal of both the anorexic and the music world. Like Curtis and Weller, hers is not a performance of the libidinal but rather a manifestation of it. Anorexia is, among other things, an attempt at controlling the body, at controlling that which remains beyond one’s control. In early photographs and film footage, Winehouse appears vivacious, full of life. In these images, she is sensual, sexy: her curvy body, her lipstick, her physical gestures emitting desire. As her success and fame grew, Winehouse’s body shrunk as she spiraled further and further into her eating disorder, destructive love relationship, and drug addictions. This second Winehouse, the one we know from paparazzi photos—disheveled, with an emaciated body, huge beehive, and lips in a sneer—is a portrait of the libidinal in extreme compression. At this point in her life the press hounded her, following her everywhere she went, eager to take photographs of her states of disarray and disorientation. Her body, her voice and her being, are extreme distillations of the Winehouse we witnessed in those early performances. She exudes not sensuality and sex but instead, fervor. You can sense this unremitting energy as it becomes stopped and jammed up within her tiny body, dictating her mannerisms, body movements, and music. It becomes so overwhelming, contained inside the body, that at a certain point it must find release. This sometimes came through her singing, writing lyrics, dancing and performances. But later when the energy became too powerful, too infinite, it was re-routed to drug addiction and a fatal eating disorder. As time passed she was reduced to an emaciated body, using drugs and starving herself while holed up with her boyfriend in a tiny apartment in Camden Town. In the end, Winehouse’s body, like Curtis,’ became a vessel for the libido: symbolic, a desperate gesture attempting to convey what is unsayable. Words trapped inside the body.

As Freud writes: the “libido has the task of making the destroying instinct innocuous, and it fulfills the task by diverting that instinct to a great extent outwards […]. The instinct is then called the destructive instinct, the instinct for mastery, or the will to power.” The death drive, Todestrieb, is the urge toward death and self-destruction originally defined by Sabina Spielrein in her paper, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being.” In his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud called it the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.” There is overlap between the death drive, or what is often simply referred to as “the drive,” and libidinal energy: both are life forces that push us toward pleasure and yet both can result in self-destruction and death.

For both Curtis and Winehouse the extreme compression of the libidinal energy became a death drive. There was no space between life and the music: their lived experiences were channeled directly to the music. Writing for Smash Hits, Alastair Macaulay once described Joy Division’s album, Closer, as an “exercise in dark controlled passion.” Controlled passion is an apt summation of the repressed libidinal, which then switches over into the death drive. In his song “Existence,” for example, in Curtis writes:

                                                Existence well what does it matter?

                                                I exist on the best terms I can.

                                                The past is now part of my future,

                                                The present is well out of hand.

And in “Back to Black, Winehouse writes:

                                                You went back to what you knew

                                                So far removed from all that we went through

                                                And I tread a troubled track

                                                My odds are stacked

                                                I’ll go back to black

No simulation, no translation. For both artists, the libidinal energy internalized was the same energy utilized for writing lyrics and making music. Such a direct and powerful current with no means for siphoning off can only lead to combustion. Winehouse died either of a heart attack resulting from anorexia-bulimia or by alcohol poisoning, depending on sources, and Curtis, of suicide by hanging. The libidinal energy trapped inside their bodies—pulsating, overwhelming—informed every aspect of their lives and, in the end, overcame them. The death drive took over.

Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.

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