I wrote this for my “Literature and Psychoanalysis” class this semester. It’s about the song “Iron Galaxy” by Cannibal Ox which you can hear here
Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy” addresses the cold, rotting nature of inner city New York. The rap duo, aided by El-P’s production, mechanically paint a picture of an urban landscape filled with death, loss, and the suffering detachment of those who remain. In this landscape, death becomes routine to the point that avoiding death is a mere everyday struggle for the people in Cannibal Ox’s world. Death surrounds these people, but as routine as it is, the death of another, for the most part, is no longer felt as an explicit loss but as a normal occurrence. In this world of routine death then, loss works both consciously, as explicit deaths are routinely seen, and unconsciously, as the cumulative effect of these deaths and loss in general get buried below the cold, mechanical shells of the people who witness them. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia”, discusses the nature, causes, and symptoms of mourning and melancholia. He describes mourning and melancholia as dejected states characterized by inhibition of activity and disinterest in the outside world (162). He equates mourning and melancholia by framing each of the two as a response to loss but distinguishes them in the claim, “…melancholia is related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss” (164). I would argue then that the process of simultaneous conscious and unconscious loss in “Iron Galaxy” I’ve described above causes a performance of grief that blends together the elements of mourning and of melancholia, making the two intertwined and ultimately indistinguishable in Cannibal Ox’s world. Understanding how pervasive loss works to meld two phenomena that are kept distinct in Freud’s essay can help us add a new level of nuance and ambiguity to Freud’s work on mourning and melancholia, such that the two forms of grief are not seen so completely as distinct responses to loss but rather as interacting models for understanding grief.
Pervasive death in “Iron Galaxy” induces a simultaneous conscious and unconscious loss. We can see this in the line “Little. Black. Girl. Got. Shot” that comes offhand into the second verse of the song. Speaking of this line in a review of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Stevie Chick argues that Cannibal Ox’s words often come across like a news report, saying, “They’ll spin off into abstract realms of wordplay, and then pull back to jarring documentary style, like when Vordul spits ‘Little. Black. Girl. Got. Shot,’ as jarring explosions of silence punctuate every other word (‘Iron Galaxy’), a newspaper headline made flesh” (Par. 2). Chick’s claim here emphasizes the way in which the speakers in these songs put forth a mechanical, removed outlook – one that seems more like that of a detached reporter than an affected witness – when making claims about what they see. This mechanical, detached reporter outlook, emphasized by both Vordul Mega’s way of speaking the words and the production effects behind the words, turns the loss of this “Little. Black. Girl” into one that is both conscious and unconscious for the narrator. Obviously, the narrator explicitly witnesses or hears about this death. But the distanced perspective that the narrator uses to describe this loss suggests that the conscious loss of the girl gets buried below a shell of detachment. A similar reaction to loss occurs when the narrator in the song’s third verse says, “Let’s talk in laymen terms/Rotten apples and big worms.” Speaking about New York, these lines invert the “Big Apple” depiction of New York, making the apple rotten and the worms in the apple big. In a sense, what’s lost in these lines and in the song as a whole is the “Big Apple,” the notion of New York City as a place of fun, excitement, and opportunity. And throughout “Iron Galaxy”, narrators consciously and candidly speak of the rottenness and suffering that invades their hometown. But at same time, the “Let’s talk in laymen terms” construction the narrator sets up above works to undercut the conscious impact of the loss of hometown, creating a sense of normalcy that would suggest there’s no real loss to begin with. By establishing a conscious loss and then pulling away – acting detached or affecting normalcy – the narrators in these songs make the loss into something unconscious, something that appears offhand and irrelevant even as it affects the outlook of the narrators.
With conscious and unconscious loss comes grief, which we can see performed in portions of Cannibal Ox’s flow and rhyme scheme. I’m using grief here, and in this essay in general, to speak broadly about an emotional state that encompasses both mourning and melancholia and can be characterized by the symptoms that Freud lays out for mourning and melancholia, including “abrogation of interest in the outside world” and “inhibition of all activity” (Freud, 162). We see grief performed in the opening verse of “Iron Galaxy” when the narrator speaks of a point, “When life feels, like earth don’t spin.” The feeling of stillness expressed in this line is echoed by Vordul Mega’s slow, monosyllabic flow and constant onslaught of internal rhymes in this verse. In one line, we hear, “Lifes at a stand-still, dangerous cuz man kills,” a showcase for the repetition of “an” and “ill” syllables within lines that occurs throughout the verse. The rhyme scheme and flow have the effect of creating a sense of being stuck in place in the verse, rather than moving forward through each new line. Reinforcing the sentiments of stillness expressed in the content of the lines, this effect looks like the “inhibition of all activity” of which Freud speaks. These lines then represent a part of the symptomatic response that stems from the loss, both conscious and unconscious, described in the previous paragraph, a response that could broadly encompass both mourning and/or melancholia.
With the notions of simultaneous conscious and unconscious loss and the performance of grief in “Iron Galaxy” at play, we can see how the language and narrative stance in the song confuse the distinction between mourning and melancholia. The speaker in the final verse of “Iron Galaxy” exclaims, “You were a still born baby/Mother didn’t want you, but you were still born.” These lines play on the term “still born”, and in doing so equate an unwanted, neglected child with one who’s dead from birth. This play on words then muddies the loss expressed in these lines. In one sense, the child in this mother/child relationship experiences the most prevalent loss in these lines, the loss of care and favor from the mother. But at the same time, the feeling of death implicit in the words “still born” adds another element of loss. We feel the death of the young and neglected in these lines, even as a real explicit death to which we can consciously react seems missing. These lines then confuse the very conscious loss of a mother figure and the very conscious pervasive loss and death of young children in Cannibal Ox’s urban landscape with the unconscious loss that comes when a specific death or a specific break in a relationship can’t be pinned down. The speaker, in these lines, places the agency of being “still born” on the “you”, suggesting blame from the child’s end rather than the mother’s. And in the verse in which these lines occur, the “you” seen in these lines transforms into an “I” by the time the speaker later says, “I rest my head on 115,” suggesting that even here, the speaker in fact looks inward in making this statement about a mother/son relationship. Thus, if we see the “you” as a self-projection for the speaker, the “still born” construction points to the sort of self-reviling, self-blaming behavior specifically characteristic of a melancholic. But at the same time, the verse does begin in the second person, suggesting an equal projection of blame and frustration outward towards others. As Freud argues, in mourning, “the world becomes poor and empty” rather than the ego itself (164). So here, as the ego and the outer world are confused by the speaker’s narrative stance, we see mourning’s frustration with the outer world and melancholia’s self-blame and self-reviling intertwined.
James Krasner’s essay, “Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief”, can help us understand this intertwined relationship and how it applies to examples of bodily absence in “Iron Galaxy”. Krasner’s essay points to examples of phantom limbs and false appendages in literary works and argues that these false appendages are a bodily expression of grief. He claims, “The suffering caused by phantom limbs derives not from the loss but from the sufferer’s belief in the limb’s enduring presence” (226). In his essay, Krasner equates the “phantom limbs” in this claim with the false, seemingly enduring presence of a lost loved one. I would argue that Krasner, in this statement, provides a way of thinking about grief that’s framed in terms of conscious and unconscious loss, the conscious loss being the death of the loved one herself and the unconscious loss being the loss of the “enduring presence” of the loved one’s body. Krasner argues this bodily grief’s reliance on tactile rather than visual memory frustrates, “the Freudian impulse to isolate and withdraw from the beloved” (220), an impulse that Krasner attaches to Freud’s notion of mourning. In the final verse of “Iron Galaxy”, the speaker asks, “What you figga/That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure?” Explicitly, this line points to a father’s death – a conscious loss – using the image of a “chalky outline” to illustrate this death. Considering Krasner’s ideas, this “chalky outline” could be seen as the physical manifestation of the father’s bodily absence. And framed as a question as these lines are, they point to a child holding fast to this physical manifestation in lieu of the father figure himself, showing the unconscious loss that is the child’s belief in the father’s “enduring presence.” The word “chalky” is both a visually and tactilely charged adjective, and thus in the image of the “chalky outline” the narrator conveys the need to move past the sight of the “chalky outline” when thinking about a father figure but also the continued tactile fixation with the father’s enduring presence as represented by a “chalky outline.” These lines then present both mourning’s impulse to move on from the conscious loss of a father and the enduring fixation of melancholia in the wake of the unconscious loss of the father’s enduring presence, held together in a single image.
As the final verse of “Iron Galaxy” begins to close out, the speaker in the verse offers a kind of mathematical proof to summarize this held together, ultimately indistinguishable nature of mourning and melancholia in Cannibal Ox’s world. The speaker says, “I rest my head on 115/But miracles only happen on 34th, so I guess life is mean/And death is the median/And purgatory is the mode we settle in.” The speaker constructs these lines around the mathematical language of “mean,” “median,” and “mode.” He positions life as “mean,” which both connotes the harshness and cruelty of life expressed throughout the song and mathematically states the reality that life is the mean of existence, the average experience to which everyone’s subjected. The speaker then positions death as the “median,” another term that can connote entirely different things when seen in or outside of its mathematical context. This play on median fleshes out the interwoven conscious and unconscious loss discussed throughout this essay. A median is both a divide, allowing it to stand in for the conscious divide between past and present felt upon the experience of grieving another’s death, and mathematically a middle point, akin to an average, allowing it to stand in for the unconscious impact of routine death and loss. “Purgatory”, a word and feeling that connotes gray, dejected existence like that experienced in grief, comes as the response to this median death. The speaker frames this “purgatory” as a “mode” which mathematically refers to the most common of a set of experiences but in the context of the line also refers to a fixed, settled in state of being. The “purgatory” then is both the most common, shared experience of mourning at the sight and experience of explicit, consciously felt loss and the enduring melancholic state of being that lasts throughout life and comes in response to no one death in particular but to the unconscious impact of living in a word where loss is so pervasive. Presented together in these lines, the shared mourning and lasting melancholia become one and the same, an indistinguishable phenomenon that comes to characterize life.
As can be seen, the framework and analysis Freud sets up in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia” can help us approach the complex responses that the people in Cannibal Ox’s “Iron Galaxy” have when reacting to their environment. But in an environment of constant death and loss in which conscious and unconscious experiences of loss are no longer distinguishable, mourning and melancholia, two phenomena presented by Freud as distinct, intertwine and merge together into a form of grief that simultaneously draws characteristics from both. Seeing this intertwining happening in “Iron Galaxy” can therefore inform our understanding of Freud’s framework regarding mourning and melancholia. Rather than seeing mourning and melancholia as two forms of grief for which the presence of one necessarily contradicts the presence of the other, we can see them as two interacting notions of what grief can look like, notions that can stand in distinction, as Freud posits, but can also merge together. This merging together adds an ambiguity to the two notions that reflects the ambiguity in Cannibal Ox’s language regarding the distinctions of self and other, ego and outer world, normalcy and difficulty, and the conscious and unconscious. In a world, like Cannibal Ox’s, where loss associated with death becomes confused with and seen as normal everyday experience, the ambiguity of one’s reaction to this loss forces us to consider the possibly ambiguous nature of the distinctions Freud sets up between mourning and melancholia.
Cannibal Ox. “Iron Galaxy.” The Cold Vein. Definitive Jux, 2001. MP3.
Chick, Stevie. “Cannibal Ox: The Cold Vein.” NME. 26 July, 2001. Web. Accessed through www.nme.com.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” General Psychological Theory. New York: Touchstone, 1963. Print.
Krasner, James. “Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief.” PMLA. 119.2 (2004): 218-232. Web. Accessed through www.jstor.org.