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During the fin de siècle of the twentieth century, the North of England took on immense significance in global popular culture, with Manchester in particular providing the likes of The Fall, The Smiths, The Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and, the focus of this essay, Joy Division. The perceived relationship between Joy Division and the North as mutually constitutive forces, however, has led to the proliferation of an often two-dimensional and pejorative conceptualisation of the North in the public imaginary, one which this essay seeks to complicate.

In discussing Northern England as a central site for musical popular culture during the fin de siècle of the twentieth century, David Haslam (1999) concludes that ‘Maybe if Manchester was less of a shit-hole then creativity in the city would die’ (xxx). Whilst an extreme example, this nevertheless serves as a useful starting point for conveying how critics consider the perceived inferiority and socioeconomic malaise of Manchester as not only the catalyst for its cultural output but as something inseparable from it. Dave Russell (2004), too, in discussing Joy Division remarks:

In April 1979, for example, the New Musical Express described the music of Manchester’s Joy Division as ‘sketch[ing] grey abstractions of industrial malaise[…] in the low-rent squalor of a northern industrial city’

Russell (2004), pp.229-230.

Russell adds ‘It is difficult for newcomers to read Curtis’ intensely personal and non-place specific lyrics in this way, but critical discourses certainly encourage them to’ (Russell 2004: 230). Despite this observation, Russell, oddly, concludes his study by joining said critical discourses in describing ‘the grim, de-industrialised North of The Fall and Joy Division’ (Russell 2004: 230). Jon Savage (2014) has maintained this critical reading of Joy Division as reflecting ‘the depressed city of Manchester’ (xx), as Curtis’s lyricism conveys a ‘dystopian worldview’ (xix) situated in one of the North’s many ‘vacant, derelict inner cities’ (xviii). Yet, despite the stress Savage (2014) places upon Joy Division and Manchester’s ‘apocalyptic mood’ (xviii), he does briefly touch on a novel observation. Joy Division, through the lyricism of Curtis, conjured ‘an environment at once degraded and deserted but, in a strange way, futuristic’ (xx). This is what this essay seeks to investigate further: the manifold quality of Joy Division’s lyricism. For, despite the lyrics being ostensibly ‘non-place specific’, it is evident that Joy Division and the North, particularly Manchester, are intimately connected (Russell 2004: 230) (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 05:33 – 05:50). This aligns with broader criticism about the propinquity of lyrics and place more generally (Denselow 1989; Garofalo 1992; Frith and Street 1992; Street 1988, 2012; Johansen 2002: 249; Machin, 2010; Byrne 2012).

Moreover, Simon Armitage has consistently argued that poetry and lyrics are wholly separable (Armitage 2008; Armitage and Rhubarb Bomb 2013). Yet the clarity of this division remains unconvincing, as evidenced in Armitage’s appearance discussing the lyrics of The Smiths (Simon 2013) and on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Great Lives’ in which he nominated Ian Curtis (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017). Regarding the poetic status of Joy Division’s lyrics, Armitage avers that they are:    

Full of poetic technique, but what it isn’t full of is detail. It’s just these wild abstractions, you know, very much young man’s poetry. You never get a cup of Bovril, for example, in an Ian Curtis lyric[…] I think the closest that the lyric comes to detail [is], I think, the word ‘bedroom[…] and they’re almost interchangeable as well, you can look down the lyric, you can take line eight and move it to line two.

Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46

Here, then, Armitage implies that it is a question of technique that separates the poem and the lyric, with the arbitrary interchangeability of Curtis’s lines and their lack of detail preventing their poetic status. Due to Armitage’s emphasis on the formal composition of the lyrics it is pertinent, then, to consider iconicity and, specifically, diagrammatic iconicity, which lies at the crux of poetry (Johansen 2002; Nanny 2005; Ljungberg 2016). For Ljungberg (2016), diagrammatic iconicity ‘is not defined as sharing simple qualities with its object. Instead, its similarity with its object is abstract, since the relations among its parts are similar to the relations among the parts of the object it represents’ (478). However, whilst diagrammatic iconicity is systematised and accepted in the fields of modern and contemporary linguistics, it has largely been ignored within literary studies (Nänny 2005; Ljungberg 2016).

Consequently, in analysing diagrammatic iconicity in ‘Disorder’, that is, as a calculated and interconnected composition, this essay will not only seek to affirm the poetic status of Curtis’s lyrics in light of Armitage’s criticism but will also explicate how the subjectivity created within the lyrics complicates aforementioned perceptions of the North as something wholly grim, depressed, dystopian, and vacant (Russell 2004; Savage 2014). Furthermore, David Byrne (2012) argues that viewing lyrics in isolation from the music provides an incomplete picture (69). As a result, this stylistic analysis will be multimodal in being accompanied by a comparatively brief examination of their articulation in performance through the work of Theo Leeuwen (2017) and Edward Hall (1969).  

MANUSCRIPT Analysis (see Appendix A and B)

Appendix A: ‘MANUSCRIPT’ draft of ‘Disorder’, c.1978-79 (Ian Curtis 2014: 33-4)

The diagrammatic iconicity of the MANUSCRIPT conveys a more positive, coherent, and transparent anticipation of overcoming disorder when compared to the FINAL. This is most saliently conveyed in the differential use of coordination, pronouns, isochrony, lineation, and rhyme.

Over half of the lyric’s lines use a tri-colon structure (ll.4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12). All of these lines feature isochronous diagrammatic iconicity, that is, ‘the phenomenon that the order of linguistic elements (phrases, clauses) is a reflection of the temporal order of the events they refer to’ (Jansen and Leatz 2001: 278). Veni, vidi, vici is one frequently cited example of this diagrammatic iconicity, enacting the spatial and temporal ordering of the events at the lexico-grammatical level (Jakobson 1971 [1965]; Nänny 2005; Ljungberg 2016). However, rather than conveying clearly separable and sequential events, Curtis’s use of isochronous diagrammatic iconicity utilises asyndetic coordination and, consequently, creates ambiguity about the discreteness of these events. For example, ‘Brand new spirit, touch this feeling, take the shock away’ (l.4) and ‘Touch the spirit, touch this feeling, let it out somehow’ (l.8) both reflect what Jansen and Leatz (2001) refer to as a ‘simultaneous event’ via the ‘iconic solution’ (as opposed to the ‘lexical’), in which ‘the expression of B is part of the expression of A, suggesting an intertwined course of events’ (278). In lacking the coordinating conjunction and, and thus being asyndetic, the content of the tricolon ‘Brand new spirit, touch this feeling, take the shock away’ (l.4) and ‘Touch the spirit, touch this feeling, let it out somehow’ (l.8) suggests a simultaneous event via diagrammatic iconicity. The inference that these lines depict simultaneous events is undergirded by their use of the dynamic verb ‘touch’ in its base form, placing it in the instantaneous present (Crystal 2004: 102, 107). 

Line four depicts the ‘brand new spirit’ (l.4) and the resulting engagement with ‘this feeling’ (l.4). Yet there remains some inner conflict regarding ‘take the shock away’ (l.4). Whilst the assurance of ‘Brand new spirit’ (l.4) and ‘touch the feeling’ (l.4) might suggest that ‘take’ in ‘take the shock away’ (l.4) is in the indicative mood, line eight implies that the speaker is in fact frustrated with articulating this unity of spirit and feeling. Line eight repetitiously utilises the same head, the full verb ‘touch’ (l.8) in ‘Touch the spirit’ and ‘Touch this feeling’ (l.8), much like line four, in an asyndetic structure that evokes a simultaneous isochronous diagrammatic iconicity. Yet this is accompanied by ‘let it out somehow’ (l.8), with the compound adverb ‘somehow’ (l.8) suggesting that the articulation of this inner unity is frustrated, which is complicated further in FINAL (Crystal 2004: 175). Consequently, the ‘take’ in ‘take the shock away’ (l.4) can be interpreted in the subjunctive mood, expressing the desire for expression (Crystal 2004: 92). Despite the title of the song, these lines convey a sense of internal unity struggling for outward expression, adumbrating a subjectivity more layered than the ‘grim’, ‘vacant’, and ‘dystopian’ ascriptions made to both Joy Division and Manchester (Russell 2004: 230) (Savage 2014: xix, xviii). Furthermore, as line eight resolves the ambiguity of ‘take the shock away’ (l.4) diagrammatically, and illustrates the gradated delineation of a frustrated subjectivity, one can argue against the interchangeability of Curtis’s lines (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46).

This positive sense of unity extends into the use of personal pronouns. Unlike in the FINAL, Curtis uses the first person, subjective case pronoun ‘we’ multiple times (ll.9, 10, 12) and the objective case ‘us’ (l.9). As a result, the isolated, singular number of the subjective and objective pronouns, such as ‘I’ (l.1) and ‘me’ (ll.2, 9) dwindles, here, in comparison to the multiple instances of the plural. In addition, the use of syndetic conjunctions such as ‘+’ and ‘and’ in ‘There’s more of me + more of us and we will meet again’ (l.9) supports the inference of a horizontal unity at the levels of syntax, lexis, and lineation. The overt use of conjunctions (unlike the asyndetic structures discussed above) without the typographic segmentation of commas, depicts a discrete, left-to-right diagrammatic progression from the personal pronoun ‘me’, to the objective plural ‘us’, to the subjective plural ‘we’ and thus illustrating the distinct, gradated interpolation of the speaker into a collective identity. All of this belies the funereal ascriptions of Russell (2004) and Savage (2014).

The rhyme scheme and lineation further refute the ostensibly interchangeable quality of Curtis’s lyrics (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46). According to Ljungberg (2016), ‘perfect single rhymes can have a performative function or express semantic similarity, whereas imperfect single rhymes often express uncertainty or doubt, discord, disorder, inaccuracy or negation’ (479) (Nänny 2005). Much of the MANUSCRIPT contains perfect rhymes, such as the distiches between lines three to eight. The overall rhyme scheme, however, is imperfect and this is evident between lines one and two, nine and ten, and eleven and twelve. The dissonance between the end rhymes of lines one and two express insecurity about the amelioration a guide can bring (‘hand’/’man’), whilst lines nine and ten convey doubt about the unity that will come ‘again’ in spite of the pity of ‘friends’. Whilst ‘again’ and ‘friend’ would be a perfect rhyme, the latter’s -s suffix prevents this, enacting a perception of the pluralising affix as intrusive that aligns with speaker’s broader anxiety about group acceptance, unity, and connection. Moreover, the dissonant end rhyme ‘now/know’ (ll.11-12) elicits a pronounced sense of self-doubt between what is occurring right ‘now’ (l.11) and what ‘we know’ (l.12) that strongly juxtaposes the aforementioned unity diagrammatically enacted in line nine. Evidently, what is occurring ‘right now’ (l.11) diverges from what ‘we know’ (l.12), undercutting the foregrounded unity and progression found in the movement from ‘me’ (l.9) to ‘we’ (l.9).

To conclude, Curtis’s MANUSCRIPT utilises relatively transparent instances of diagrammatic iconicity to place unity and isolation in disordered contradiction, complicating the two-dimensional perceptions of Russell (2004) and Savage (2014). Moreover, one can see how the diagrammatic connections between the lines, such as Curtis’s use of rhyme, undercut Armitage’s criticism about interchangeability (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46).

‘Final’ Analysis (see Appendix C)

Whilst broadly a recontextualization of the MANUSCRIPT, characterised by interpolation, the FINAL makes novel adaptations and additions that render the diagrammatic iconicity of the lyrics far more translucent, that is, abstract and complex (Richardson: 2017: 85; Nanny 2005: 231).

FINAL’s ‘Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?’ (l.2) is a markedly more complex adaptation from the previous ‘Cure sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man’ in MANUSCRIPT (l.2). The introduction of the proximal, demonstrative pronoun ‘these’ (l.2) creates a sense of immediacy with the ‘sensations’ that are a key fixation in the FINAL (ll.4, 14, 15, 16). However, FINAL’s use of what Crystal (2004) calls a yes-no question via the modal verb ‘Could’ (l.2), rather than the MANUSCRIPT’s declarative statement, conveys the insecurity of the speaker in whether these sensations, despite their proximity, can deliver a sense of normality or stability (49). The overt use of deixis here, paradoxically, highlights the subjective distance of the ‘sensations’.

Regarding imperfect rhyme, the diagrammatic iconicity of lines one and two is more layered here compared to the MANUSCRIPT due to the indentation and movement of the singular common noun ‘man’ (l.3) to a separate line. The aforementioned anxiety towards the prospect of guidance and consequent dislocation encoded in the imperfect rhyme (‘hand’/’man’) in MANUSCRIPT is here accentuated via typographic separation, as ‘man’ (l.3) is physically moved away from that which could lead to social connection, that is, ‘hand’ (l.1). As Nanny (2005) avers, ‘in terms of rhythm and meaning the manipulation of line breaks or line endings… often assumes iconic force’, and the separation of ‘man’ (l.3) from the broader ‘Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal’ (l.2), could imply that the prospect of being taken by the ‘hand’ (l.1) has forcefully pushed ‘man’ (l.3) into another line (239). Additionally, in terms of lineation, this typographic separation forces the reader to pause at the end of line two before reading ‘man’ (l.3), accentuating and verbally enacting the separation and isolation of the speaker.

The only other indented word in FINAL is the common, count noun ‘friends’ (l.12), suggesting a diagrammatic connection with ‘man’ (l.3). However, despite this typographic alignment, this diagrammatic connection iconically recapitulates the alienation of the speaker and his insecurity about social identification via the vertical distance in lineation – ‘man’ (l.3) and ‘friends’ (l.12). As Nanny (2005) further observes, a stanza break and distance in lineation can ‘mark a gap, emptiness, hollowness, openness, but also a barrier of separation’ (239). Here, ‘man’ (l.3) is separated from ‘friends’ (l.12) by two stanza breaks, with the second stanza between them possessing perfect rhyme, tricolons, and unbroken lines of relatively uniform length. Said stanza captures the absolute disorder of the speaker’s landscape with a uniformity in typography that undergirds the sense that it is an insurmountable monolith compared to the disordered stanzas before and after it. The diagrammatic iconicity between ‘man’ (l.3) and ‘friends’ (l.12) conveys both the opportunity and inaccessibility of social unity, in turn refuting the ostensibly interchangeable quality of Joy Division’s lines (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46) and the two-dimensional interpretation of Curtis’s lyrical affect as wholly negative (Russel 2004, Savage 2014).   

Line nine also complicates its MANUSCRIPT predecessor (l.8) and the ascription of an etiolated affect in Curtis’s lyrics (Russel 2004; Savage 2014). In the MANUSCRIPT, Curtis’s repetition of ‘touch’ in ‘touch the spirit, touch the feeling, let it out somehow’ (l.8) conveys a unity between ‘spirit’ and ‘feeling’ that nevertheless is struggling for expression, as undergirded by the compound adverb ‘somehow’ in ‘let it out somehow’ (l.8) (Crystal 2004: 175). Seeking to convey greater disorder in FINAL, Curtis utilises the possessive contraction ‘I’ve’ (l.9) and the transitive verb ‘got’ (l.9) to state with greater certainty that he has ‘the spirit’ (l.9). As Crystal (2004) illustrates, ‘have’ is used to convey something ‘as a rule’ whilst ‘got’ conveys what is ‘now’ (87). Yet Curtis interpolates a sense of loss unfound in the MANUSCRIPT via ‘lose the feeling’ (l.9). Both of these clauses are contained in a tripartite, isochronous simultaneous event that implies that the spirit has been acquired, the feeling has been lost, and letting ‘it out somehow’ (l.9) now refers to articulating the concomitant disorder rather than the sense of unity found in the MANUSCRIPT’s ‘Touch the spirit, touch the feeling, let it out somehow’ (l.8).

Curtis makes significant alterations in his use of pronouns in the final stanza that further undercuts the sense of social unity in MANUSCRIPT. Whereas in MANUSCRIPT, ‘THERE’S MORE OF ME + MORE OF US AND WE WILL MEET AGAIN’ (l.9), in FINAL Curtis adapts this line to ‘What means to you, what means to me, and we will meet again’ (l.10). Notably, Curtis replaces the syndetic co-ordination of ‘+’ and ‘AND’ in MANUSCRIPT with asyndetic co-ordination and typographic segmentation via the use of commas in FINAL. As Nanny (2005) observes, ‘Fragmentation may be reflected in a syntax that is broken up into parts’ (242), seen here in the use of commas and use of asyndetic conjunction, and this sense of fragmentation carries into Curtis’s pronoun shift. ‘What means to you’ (l.10) and ‘what means to me’ (l.10) imply, by the pronoun shift, that what is significant to the speaker and what is significant to ‘you’ (l.10) are wildly different. Yet, the epistemic modality of the modal verb ‘will’ in ‘and we will meet again’ (l.10) gives certainty to the main verb ‘meet’, implying that despite the syntactic fragmentation and subjective separation of the speakers (‘means to you’/’means to me’) the two will meet. Whereas ‘we’ is used frequently in the MANUSCRIPT (ll.9, 10, 12) it appears in FINAL only in ‘we will meet again’ (l.10). Thus, the fragmentation in syntax alongside the pronoun shift nevertheless conveys a disordered blend of hope and isolation.

Overall, the FINAL manuscript evokes a greater degree of translucent diagrammatic iconicity, as perceptible in the relationship between ‘man’ (l.3) and ‘friends’ (l.12); the use of imperfect rhyme; and alterations from the MANUSCRIPT, that both undercut Armitage’s critique about interchangeability and convey a disordered, doxastic subjectivity that belies the two-dimensional ascriptions of Russell (2004) and Savage (2014) (Nänny 2005: 231) (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46). What becomes more apparent in the sheer freneticism of the performance is the resistance and determination of the speaker, which further contradicts the ascriptions of grim, dystopian vacancy (Russell 2004: 230; Savage 2014: xix, xviii).


In the foreword to So This Is Permanence, Deborah Curtis (2014) remarks that ‘Although the poetry readily stands alone, his [Ian’s] voice and the music that is Joy Division is there to be listened to’ (xi). Savage (2014), too, asserts that the songs ‘were written to be sung with loud music that was at once brutal and unwavering, futuristic and increasingly sophisticated’ (xxvii) (emphasis added). Consequently, I will conduct a brief examination of a live performance of ‘Disorder’ (Worst050 2012), explicating the iconic significance of loudness and instrumentation via the taxonomies of Theo van Leeuwen (2017) and Edward Hall (1969).

Leeuwen’s (2017) taxonomy for the distribution and nature of sound as a social phenomenon is as follows:

  • Social unison (or ‘monophony’ in music theory). ‘All participants sing and/or play the same notes. This can express solidarity, a positive sense of being united by a common purpose’ (124-5).
  • Social pluralism (‘polyphony’). “Different melodies are simultaneously sung by different voices and/or played by different instruments, yet all fit harmoniously together… ‘equal but different’” (125)
  • Social domination (‘homophony’). ‘One voice (the melody) becomes dominant and the other voices subordinate, accompanying and supporting the dominant voice’ (125)

The Factory recording (Worst050 2012) depicts active contestation, aligning closest with Leeuwen’s notion of social domination. However, as the song’s title and the analysis of the lyrics above suggests, this is not a clear picture of social domination but, rather, a frenetic site of conflict that belies easy categorisation within Leeuwen’s schema. This is illustrated primarily through the differential loudness of the instrumentation compared to Curtis’s vocals, conveying a warring between individual and environment that iconically enacts the disorder discussed above.

Hall (1969) approaches loudness as deictic and indicative of social distance, similarly to how Leeuwen (2017) broaches sonic distribution. ‘Public range’ is reified by full vocal projection; ‘intimate range’ is conveyed by whispering; whilst soft articulation evokes a ‘close personal range’ (Hall 1969: 184-185). By the end of ‘Disorder’, Curtis’s ‘public range’ riposte to the instrumentation (Worst050 2012: 3:05-3:19) melds into a ‘close personal range’ perceptible in the articulation of the final tricolon of ‘feeling’ (Worst050 2012: 3:19-3:26). In the FINAL lyrics, the narrator had lost the ‘feeling’ despite possessing the ‘spirit’ to attain and embody it (ll.5, 9, 17, 18). In performance, the speaker clearly attains the ‘feeling’ through increased loudness and dogged repetition of ‘feeling’, overcoming the bass, drums, and guitar. The interstices between the penultimate (Worst050 2012: 3:20) and terminal (Worst050 2012: 3:22-25) ‘feeling’, which is elongated, conveys relief, ascendance, and closure, moving from ‘intimate’ to ‘close personal range’.


In analysing the diagrammatic iconicity of ‘Disorder’ and the articulation of the lyrics in performance, it is evident that the ascriptions applied to both Joy Division and, by extension, Manchester are inaccurate. Rather than portraying a ‘grim, de-industrialised’, ‘dystopian’, and ‘vacant’ ‘shit-hole’, Curtis weaves a scene of doxastic conflict marred by a variety of differing impulses, possibilities, and absences (Russell 2004: 230; Savage 2014: xix, xviii; Haslam 1999: xxx). Moreover, the diagrammatic iconicity between and within lines, which build upon and alter significantly from MANUSCRIPT to FINAL, challenge Armitage’s claim that Curtis’s lines are interchangeable and thus unpoetic (Parris, Armitage, Hook 2017: 17:20-17:46). In creating my own model for analysis by drawing upon different schisms of social semiotic, stylistic, and linguistic theory, I hope stylisticians will undertake more rigorous analyses of lyrics that incorporate this multimodal perspective.


Appendix A: ‘MANUSCRIPT’ draft

Appendix A: ‘MANUSCRIPT’ Draft of ‘Disorder’ c.1978-79 (Ian Curtis 2014: 33-34).

Appendix B: Transcription of Appendix A (‘MANUSCRIPT’)













Appendix C: ‘FINAL’ Lyrics (Curtis 2014: 35)

‘I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand

Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal


These sensations barely interest me for another day

I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away                                         5

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand

On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land

Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now

I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow

What means to you, what means to me, and we will meet again                                                                                                                     10

I’m watching you, I’m watching her, I’ll take no pity from your


Who is right, who can tell, and who gives a damn right now?

Until the spirit new sensation takes hold, then you know,

Until the spirit new sensation takes hold, then you know,                                        15

Until the spirit new sensation takes hold, then you know,

I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling

I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling

Feeling, feeling, feeling, feeling, feeling, feeling, feeling.


Textual and Audio Sources

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Curtis, D. (2014). ‘Foreword’. In: D. Curtis, and J. Savage, eds., So This Is Permanence, 1st ed. London: Faber and Faber, pp.vii-xii.

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Russell, D. (2004). Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

Savage, J. (2014). ‘Introduction’. In: D. Curtis, and J. Savage, eds., So This Is Permanence, 1st ed. London: Faber and Faber, pp.xiii-xxviii.

Simon, M. (2013). ‘The Smiths: Not Like Any Other Love – The Culture Show’. [online] YouTube. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 March 2019].

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Published by CJGriffin

I am a PhD Researcher of Contemporary Anglophone Literature at the University of Warwick. I mainly research 'the secret', neoliberalism, and the novel since the turn of the twenty-first century in Britain, drawing on literary studies, politics, philosophy, history, poststructuralism, postcritique, affect theory, and aesthetics.

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