The Life and Death of a Subject: On Dance Gavin Dance’s Instant Gratification
Who are you? What are you all about? Tell me about yourself.
In these and many other colloquial requests, what is interrogated is none other than the “self.” The self is what each one of us has, but no two are exactly alike. Your self makes you a unique individual, although the structure of selfhood is common to all. This structure is what I would call subjectivity. One has subjectivity (meaning, one is a subject) by virtue of being a unique individual (that is, having a self). While the notion of self may not be controversial in itself, its precise domain has eternally been unsettled ground.
There are those who maintain that the self is what stays constant amidst our changing experiences. For our entire lives, we harbor the same self within us through to the end. However, there are experiences that chip away at our faith in an eternal self. A common experience is looking back at ourselves as we were in the past. Who has not seen a picture from their childhood and thought: “Was that really me?” Yet the past is not the only realm in which one’s self seems precarious. The experience of the “uncanny” in the present can lead one to feel out of step with oneself. This feeling of being at odds with oneself can also occur in our anticipation of future events. The anxiety associated with an imminent break in routine can make one feel the poverty of one’s current self. Nevertheless, each self adjusts, in one way or another, to every novelty.
The occasion for these comments on subjectivity is the recent release of Instant Gratification, the latest album from Dance Gavin Dance. The album provides a timeless meditation on the manifestation and annihilation of subjectivity. The “you” referenced in many of the songs is none other than the subject’s dialogue with itself as it struggles to make sense of the world. While the lyrics are conceptually dense (contrary to what one popular critic believes), they resonate with the form and style of the instrumental sound.
Our current task is two-fold. First, we must clarify how Instant Gratification deals with selfhood and subjectivity in general. Second, we will underscore the contribution that the album makes toward a new theory of subjectivity. Given the fact that the album follows the chronological life and death of a subject, I have chosen to follow the same order from the first to the last track. The album reveals no less than the transcendental structure of subjectivity as it is grasped from the subject’s point of view.
The album follows a parabolic journey from the birth of the subject to its death. The apex occurs at the seventh track. Until that point, the narrator is on a path toward literal self-discovery. It begins on track one, “We Own The Night.”
Perhaps more than on any other track the theme of life is highlighted: “Give into the moment and live now.” Life presents the possibility of a moment or experience that is contrasted to the eternal nothingness of death. Life also means being open to new experiences: “Let your hair down, have one more round, drink til you believe it.” Even once one’s life is self-assured, the drinking must not end. We need to medicate ourselves against the thought of death. I must “pretend that I’m not barely hanging on.” Toward this end, the subject will medicate itself against the possibility of its very impossibility (that is, death).
Now that the possibility of the self is realized in its immediate apprehension of its own experience, it must be delimited and protected. The general importance of a self-contained subject is outlined in “Stroke God, Millionaire.” Now that the subject has manifested before itself its own possibility for life, it can see itself as nothing less than God. As the basis of subjectivity, the self-appropriation of life (in the face of death) is a kind of self-creation (or auto-genesis) of the subject. In this way, the “ray” that shines forth from the living subject is both the ray of light/God and also a “beam of belief in identity.” As creator and created, the subject finds itself in a pseudo-reciprocal relationship of self-love: “I’m in love with the feeling that I’m loved.” This relationship is pseudo-reciprocal because love is exchanged with oneself, rather than with another.
This is further unpacked in the line: “Not alone, so alone.” This paradox is the result of the subject’s self-love being the foundation for subjectivity. That is, the subject is not alone because it is with itself, but it is so alone because its basis for life is its self-appropriation. This paradox forms the fundamental structure of subjectivity. If the structure had a shape, it would be a pocket: “I’ll keep hiding in this cul-de-sac.” From this pocket, it is impossible to verify if other supposed subjects are indeed real: “Expecting the people to live in your head.” This premature subject is none other than the ego as it is articulated by René Descartes. However, the closure of the subject within itself cannot last forever. In its divine intonations, it must eventually ask: “Is there a God?”
Realizing that there could be something beyond subjectivity (that is, objects or other subjects) leads to acknowledging oneself as an impoverished subject. Whatever is outside seems, at first, inaccessible. Hence, one begins the search for “Something New.” The subject feels like a prisoner that desires to “throw it all away and open up with something new.” The following lyrics aptly capture this feeling:
Mixing magic potions
Looking for a meaning
To get myself out of this costume
Sick and tired of counting
Bubbles in the ceiling
Feel like a prisoner in my head
Once finding something new becomes a legitimate possibility, the subject takes off “On the Run” in order to find it. The subject realizes it cannot contain itself, but it also knows that it needs a “taste.” The taste in question is determined by finding similar tastes in other subjects. This allows the subject to identify something outside of itself that is alike enough fo rit to comprehend. Once a subject recognizes another with the same taste, it becomes a member of the class homo sapiens (literally: same taste). Holding on to this same taste is ever important, especially with “temptation running wild.”
How long can a subject hold on? Some hold on until the end. Others break under the pressure of temptation. This pressure is revealed in the fifth track, “Shark Dad.” The part of the subject that cannot contain itself is like another self attempting to escape. Memory and self-identity fade away like the changing of the seasons, and with the same necessity: “Now I can’t find the person that was you. Oh no, I can’t remember. The leaves were bound to change.” The self that one identified with before is now lost and “time is almost up.” If we lose ourselves, it is as if we are losing our lives.
The birth of the subject was founded on self-medication and tranquility: a safeguard to protect from death. But this calm drunkenness cannot last. “It wasn’t me, the world is drunk.” The self-contained subject can no longer maintain its static self-identity. The distinction between my subjectivity and that of others becomes ambiguous. The subject slips through the world and takes on different forms, all while realizing that it is really the world that is standing still amidst all this change. The nauseating transformations of the subject force it to disengage from the world. What is there left to say? Only: “I’m lost.”
Once the subject feels totally lost and is in complete doubt about its self-sufficiency, it returns, in an “Awkward” way, back to its former optimism and faith in subjectivity. It will “get better” because it has the fundamental subjective desire “to be somebody.” Similar to the Cartesian subject, it finds absolute certainty after the torments of doubting itself: “Show me how to doubt myself.” By realizing what is closest to it and most true (that is, its very similarity to itself), it can declare: “Mine is mine, I clamp my head in the crease of a familiar shell.” (Here, “mine is mine” is a clear reference to Fichte’s “I am I.” The difference underscores the subject’s self-possession in a hyper-Cartesian sense.)
The subject is now fully alive and aware of itself as subject. It has experienced some things that have been different, but has returned safely to a state of self-assurance. Its desires circulate in a closed economy of self-love. It does not need any other subject to give itself meaning, but it does identify other subjects according to “taste.”
On the seventh track, “The Cuddler,” the subject begins its disintegration. At first, it affirms itself as the fulcrum of all meaning: “I’ll go get the decider, I’ll be center divider.” In this task, it will be ever vigilant: “Stare until it makes me blind.” Yet, this constant vigilance seems like it could last for an eternity without amounting to anything. The subject “can’t fight feeling this is meaningless.”
The subject is beginning to mature. Its adolescence is, as usual, a crisis. It believes that it has been holding itself back. At this point, the subject tells itself that it is “time to grow up [and] come into your own.” This task implies no longer going to get the decider, but becoming the decider oneself. (In this sense, one can anticipate all the aporias suggested by Jacques Derrida about the decisional structure of subjectivity.)
Not only is the subject reasonable, but it also finds all reasons inside itself: “I am all the reasons…I am every season.” Nevertheless, this new self that takes up the responsibility of decider is essentially different than the self it grows out of. The subject watches itself split into two: “Watching you become everything I’m not. A new former shell.” The premature subject is “old and done.” As the new, adolescent subject takes over, a profound rupture has been discovered in the structure of subjectivity.
The subject’s excess accelerates and gains magnitude in the final four tracks. The subject’s sense of self is pushed beyond its limit. It no longer makes sense to say, “I cannot contain myself,” because the originary, singular self has been split into multiple selves. In “Eagle vs. Crows,” the subject explodes:
Like the fastest object overgrowth
Like a basket lobbing egg and yolk
I got the bombast little habit
Watch my head explode
The vocals of this track vacillate between dissonant screeches and harmonic hymnals. The multiple selves of the subject arise in consonance with the disorientation of all the senses. It is no longer possible for me to speak in one voice, tone, or language. The polyvocality of the track resonates with the content of the lyrics in form and meaning. The subject, as it was first conceived, is lost forever.
The selection of new selves represents a kind of little death in the subject. One must deny former selves in order to create new ones. This very movement is articulated in “Death of a Strawberry.” In this track, radical excess without reserve is celebrated: “Wanna waste away my days…and blow through all my wealth.” The interiority of the self, introduced in “Stroke God, Millionaire,” has become a curse: “Sick of being in my head…and worried about my health.” Denial becomes one’s preferred weapon for liberation. Even in my infinite expenditure, I can “pretend I’m made of money.” This “special invented armor” protects the subject from the orchestrated decisions of former selves. True wisdom lies in successfully executing this withdrawal: “I believe denial makes me hella intelligent.”
The penultimate track, “Variation,” heralds the death of the subject. The death is not just that of any subject, but of the entire structure of subjectivity as it was first conceived (in “We Own the Night” and by Descartes). The quest for immediate knowledge is abandoned. Instead of becoming a decider, the subject remains “under indecision” and becomes dependent on passing moments. The subject acknowledges that it is a contingent formation within the flux of time and will decompose into materials for constructing new subjects in the future. As such, it chastises the self-assuredness of the self-conscious subject, “Am I the reason that you can’t look past your future self? Got me believing you been stuck and glued in frequent doubt.” The self-identical subject cannot see beyond its own self, which it arrogantly pretends is eternal in accord with Cartesian axioms.
At this juncture, current senses are dulled. New senses and subjects await to be discovered. To anchor one configuration of subjectivity (via Cartesian doubt) would be a failure from the beginning: “Doubt is failure by design.” The life of the subject described at the beginning of this article already had buried deep within itself the necessity of its death. As the subject destroys itself, its liberation is realized. Toward this end, one must continually “duck ‘n dodge, stay unaligned.”
The final death toll is rung in “Lost.” It begins by contradicting the discovery of the subject on the first track. Instead of finding myself, “I am lost.” Not only am I lost, but also, I “need a God.” A new blindness takes over from being subjectified for too long. (Recall that being a self-same subject, according to “The Cuddler,” means staring until you are blind.) A new vision is required for a world that has been fractured into so many unique subjectivities. The world becomes a multiplicity of shifting colors: “Give me eyes. Kaleidoscope the world in color. Help me put my world in order.”
As the subject becomes fractured, so does truth. The multiplicity of subjects denotes degrees of lies, rather than degrees of truth: “I can conceive a better way to lie.” Nevertheless, the best lie puts a world in order again and allows a subject to feel secure. It is in this way that the disintegration of the originary subject is necessary for any community of subjects to arise. When subjects come together in a way not determined by similar “tastes,” community begins and the possibility of meaning returns. But, for this incredible gravitation to occur, one must be patient: “So wait it out.”
However, the wait is not forever. As living assemblages of subjects, we follow our “animal instincts” to survive together. We are “capable, sociable, [and] subject.” Once the subject has rid itself of its Cartesian certainty, it can say, “I’m part of the pack.” As a pack, we form a veritable community of subjects with nothing in common. In this way, the subject that was previously lost now finds itself as a “citizen of the world” in the great cosmopolis, insofar as it recognizes the infinite gap of undecidability that separates forms of subjectivity.
But, if this group of subjects were ever to find commonality amongst themselves and to determine citizenship based on that quality, each subject would fall again into the trappings of its life cycle. The group would become “darkness’ father” and its truth would become “pain.” Like the dark days in Lucki Eck$’s Body High, subjects can only come together when they have given up any pretension to being a self-identical, self-assured subject.
In more ways than one, Instant Gratification is the story of the life and death of a subject (that is, any subject whatsoever). At inception, the subject survives off itself and gives itself life. At its end, the subject finds itself a multiplicity of non-primordial subjectivities that distribute themselves across multiple bodies and “persons.” As such, the differentiated forms of subjectivity create the possibility of a community with nothing in common. The subjects of this new community have nothing in common other than their denial of essentialist configurations of subjectivity.
In more ways than one, Instant Gratification names this album perfectly. One first hears “instant gratification” in its colloquial sense: the immediate pleasure of the subject. As our adventure comes to end, we hear the second, more secret meaning of the album’s title. In the “instant” or moment which gives life to the subject, we soon discovered the seed of the subject’s death. Once the subject was fragmented into a multiplicity of disparate subjectivities, we found the possibility of true community. This conclusion brings together the “instant” with its eventual “gratification” in that gratification can also mean “obligingness” (gratificatio) to others. In other words, the subject finds as its basis the subjectivity of others and its responsibility to those other lives.