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36. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures



Joy Division.

You know Joy Division.

You already know the story. You know the dark, pulsating music. The mega-hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart with its poppy synth melody. The dark meaning of the band’s name. The tragedy of the early death of singer Ian Curtis. 

You probably recognise the Unknown Pleasures album art, too. (Maybe from a t-shirt.)

Maybe you’ve seen the film Control, or 24 Hour Party People. Or maybe you’ve read one of the many books, articles, and blogs that have been written about the band.

It’s entirely possible that your first exposure to Joy Division was through one of these things, rather than through one of their two full-length records. That you first came into contact with… 

… and this is one of my favourite words, coming up next…

Say it with me: exegesis.

Ooh. It feels like it shouldn’t even work. Like a tongue-twister contained within an eight-letter word. Just like ‘dyspnoea’ (the last word I got really nerdy about), it’s pure Greek, literally meaning “to draw out.” It’s used in academic and biblical circles to refer to the material written about a piece of work, as opposed to the work itself.

And Joy Division have plenty of exegesis. 

Has there ever been another band with more books written about them than singles released? With as many feature films as studio albums? 

To find a parallel, we have to look beyond the world of music. We have to look to Prague in the early 20th century. We have to look to a writer whose work is often mentioned in parallel with Joy Division’s music.

We have to look to Franz Kafka.

The comparisons drawn between the two often hang on stylistic concepts: a shared sense of existential dread, a quasi-religious feeling of surveillance and untold power, a darkness. Then there’s the Joy Division track Colony, itself a reference to Kafka’s short story In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony), in which a traveler visits a clandestine institution, where he witnesses capital punishment doled out by a machine which inscribes the crimes of the victim into their flesh. Cheery stuff.

But I think there’s more than just an aesthetic connection between Joy Division and Kafka. There’s a biographical, exegetic connection.

Because Kafka, too, died young. Little of his work was published in his own lifetime: a handful of short stories, including perhaps his most famous work, the Novella Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). And in both cases, a whole industry has sprung up around the scant material they published.

Kafka’s unfinished works, diaries, and letters have been published, as have Ian Curtis’ in the hefty So This Is Permanence. Details of their personal and romantic lives have been pored over in books and biopics. The two even have similarly spider-y handwriting.

When considering the sheer weight of ink and paper dedicated to these two talented but troubled young men, I’m reminded of a scene in Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece Das Schloss (The Castle) in which a land surveyor named K. has been summoned to a remote village, nestled at the foot of an enormous castle, only to be told upon arrival that his services are not required. He goes to speak to the mayor, and finds him lying in bed, surrounded by reams and reams of paperwork and folders, piled high in every corner. K. thinks to himself that the whole lot looks likely to topple over and consume him at any second.

In the case of creative genius which is lost too soon, there’s an instinct in us to ask why, to search through what they left behind in hopes of an undiscovered masterpiece, or even to profit off of their legacy. But all of this exegesis… we need to be careful not to get carried away. Not to be buried under the sheer weight of all of the surrounding material.

Don’t draw out too far and lose sight of the work itself.



  1. Ian Curtis Tribute – Los Humillados
  2. Love Will Tear Us Apart – Squarepusher
  3. Isi – NEU!
  4. Exegesis – WHY?
  5. A New Kind of Water – This Heat
  6. Sister Ray (live) – Joy Division
  7. Joy Division Oven Gloves – Half Man Half Biscuit
  8. Writing – Bill Callahan
  9. At the Academic Conference – Dent May
  10. Franz Kafka at the Zoo – The Clean
  11. Academic – New Order
  12. Heart of Darkness – Pere Ubu
  13. Hermetic – The Books
  14. No Growing (Exegesis) – The Olivia Tremor Control
  15. Citizens – Josef K
  16. Read in Books – Echo & the Bunnymen
  17. Paper – Talking Heads
  18. Disarray – Preoccupations
  19. Handsome Devil – The Smiths
  20. I Feel Mysterious Today – Wire
  21. Destroy Before Reading – The Jesus Lizard
  22. Why Theory? – Wire
  23. Midget Submarines – Swell Maps
  24. Tonight I Feel Like Kafka – Jealous of the Birds
  25. Ian Curtis Wishlist – Xiu Xiu
  26. Das Schloss, Kapitel 5, Teil 1 – Franz Kafka (read by Sven Regener)
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