April 21, 2009

What They Want Her To Be Is...

I have been infatuated with the insane for as long as I can remember. Traditionally, insanity or madness is the behavior whereby a person flouts societal norms and may become a danger to themselves and others. This definition by wikipedia, leaves a lot open to interpretation. I have spent much of my life wondering where I fit in this classification.

Never having been a fan of societal norms, I have spent much of my energy, perhaps in vain, flouting them every chance I get. The older I get, the more “sane” I am conditioned to behave, I suppose, but by the definition above nearly every young person could be considered insane.

I suppose one could argue that it is the second part of the definition that marks a person insane, that without being a danger to oneself or others, a person is not insane, merely eccentric, but for anyone who has stepped just a bit off the conformist past, insanity feels much closer to home.

It is in this web of defining madness, where I find the intrigue. Who decides which of our behaviors are okay and which ones deem attention? Why is it that we don’t have as much room to be our true selves even in our so called free societies?
Foucault writes, that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge (terms which Foucault believed to be so fundamentally connected that he often combined them in a single hyphenated concept, "power-knowledge").

Foucault suggests that a "carceral continuum" runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to our everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision (surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour) of some humans by others.

I find the idea of my sanity being judged by others as extremely disturbing. No other work of art captures this notion of man versus society better than Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I do not want to get into the themes and underlying idea of the novel in this post, so I will refer to wikipedia:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest refers constantly to different authorities that control individuals through subtle and coercive methods. The novel's narrator, the Chief, combines these authorities in his mind, terming them "The Combine" in reference to the mechanistic way they manipulate and process individuals

…the subtlety of Nurse Ratchet’s actions prevents her prisoners from understanding that they are being controlled at all.
It is this idea of not feeling like we are being controlled at all that haunts me. The Combine has become so effective that we rarely notice it grinding on.
The novel's critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censor aspects of themselves and their actions.
Pearl Jam’s song Why Go is the story of one girls conflict with The Combine, and since I have had my own altercations with The Combine, I find the song extremely poignant. The song speaks to anyone who has ever felt alone with their freedom in the face of oppression.
She scratches a letter into a wall made of stone
Maybe someday another child wont feel as alone as she does
From the beginning, Vedder mirrors the narrative in the song he is singing. He is scratching a letter, in this case the song, onto an imaginary wall, so we can hang on and not feel so alone. I cannot count how many times I have found comfort in the notion that there are people out there, Vedder included who are scratching signposts for me to follow in the dark, and I hope that through my ramblings, I am able to shed some light for others.

I was not fully cooked when I entered the “real” world. I was a series of half-baked ideologies, dreams, and scars. I needed an anthem, and Why Go fit that bill. Why Go is to this day one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs. The following lines:
Its been two years, and counting, since they put her in this place
Shes been diagnosed by some stupid fuck, and mommy agrees, yeah...
Whoa...yeah...hey yeah yeah...
Why go home...
Made every authority figure I would face for the following decade a “stupid fuck.” While I had a great relationship with my mother, and still do, I was not to keen with being labeled and controlled by society. For most of the nineties, I lived with a huge chip on my shoulder and songs like Why Go didn’t help me assimilate.

Looking back now, my rebellion was in no way original, a series of tattoos, colored hair, and general disorderliness, but something in me still shakes when I sing:
She seems to be stronger, but what they want her to be is weak
She could play pretend, she could join the game, boy
She could be another clone...ooh...whoa...ah yeah...
The idea of being a clone has always terrified me. It gets scarier as one enters middle age. The very notion of freedom and rebellion suddenly appears immature at best and insane at worst. The freedoms we afford young people to work out their societal issues, tend to be taken away as soon as soon as we start to have children of our own and assume positions within The Combine.

The scary part is that we don’t have too many choices. We can either go the route of McMurphy, and become consumed by The Combine, or perhaps forgotten like the protagonist in Why Go.

As always, Pearl Jam dares us to tear open our scars and force the world to see the damage it has caused. I have added a clip from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest that epitomizes this ideal. After failing to budge the fountain and losing the bet, McMurphy says,"at least I tried!"

Yes you did, Randell. Yes you did.Finally here is an epic clip from 1992, please pay close attention to Vedder at 2:15 of this clip to get a sense of my attitude in the early nineties.

I choose to follow Vedder himself. We can act as inspirational posts for others lost in the darkness of our own madness. For anyone out there who feels insane for not fitting into society, I say that you are not alone. We drift out here scratching our letters onto walls. There is no need to go home. You are not alone if you stay away from the clones and don’t pretend, don’t join the game!


  1. Tim Best3:28 AM

    Great post. Pearl Jam was probably my first band obsession, and I appreciate your using of their lyrics to discuss societal issues. I've spent countless hours doing much the same thing.

  2. fascinating! Reminds me of that Carl Jung quote (apparently) "show me a sane man and I will cure him for you" :)