Black Metal and rupture of civilization aesthetics
This is a translation of Lukas Germann’s talk that was a part of the ‘Erfreulichen Uni’ discussion series at Palace, St. Gallen, Switzerland on May 30, 2017. The talk was published on the Swiss metal blog Alpkvlt – you can listen to the recording (in German) there. Thanks to the kind permission of Alpkvlt and Lukas Germann, you can now read the English translation below. But be aware, it’s a proper long read! And, on a second note, I’d like to point out that the translation is in no way perfect but hopefully still understandable. Images and videos were chosen and placed in the text by myself and do not always reflect the original talk.
On Lukas Germann: During his studies of philosophy and German philology he focused on the relationship between aesthetic forms of expression and society. Germann’s metal journey began as an 11-year old when he discovered Iron Maiden’s ‘Piece of Mind’, and since then metal has not released its grip on him. Shortly after, he also took interest in more extreme metal genres. Besides music, he has focused on the medium film. His book ‘Die Wirklichkeit als Möglichkeit. Das revolutionäre Potential filmischer Ästhetik‘ (Reality as possibility. The revolutionary potential of cinematic aesthetics [Ed. my translation]) was published in 2016 by Diaphanes.
When the English band Venom emerged in 1981 with ‘Welcome to Hell’ and the ‘Black Metal’ album the following year, they probably were not fully aware that they had just created a new heavy metal sub genre. Ten years later, the genre named by Venom – black metal – would rise from the underground and make it into the international yellow press. And not because of the aggressive music and provocative lyrics, but because of arson, suicides and murders, thus through a wave of real violence that rocked especially the Scandinavian black metal scene.
One could argue that the way from extolled to real violence was only a logical consequence. This would mean agreeing with conservative culture critics that didn’t tire of warning people about satanic rock music and its harmful influences in the 1980s. I intend to contradict this conclusion and to clear the way for the value of the dark, the aggressive, the esoteric, the amoral and the quite possibly dangerous in music and art – especially in their extreme forms.
To achieve this, I will conduct a double subversion by applying philosophical theories on art and aesthetics by Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Søren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche on a field that is completely foreign to the most of their current adepts: black metal. And by in reverse attributing an enlightened skeptical rationality to black metal that often present itself anti-rational and unenlightened. Both by the way ventures that are frowned upon by both philosophy and black metal as I have come to notice.
But back to the beginning, and to Venom.
Venom’s music is in its essence especially hard and dirtily played rock’n’roll with punk influences. The music is not especially dark, on the contrary, it’s rather elated. The same goes for the lyrics. They talk about demons, the devil, witches, bloody rituals and the likes, but always with a good portion of irony and mischief. The anti-attitude is paramount: Rejection of good taste, decreed moral, virtuous conventionality. The satanic is in its essence the anti-Christian which again picks up the rejection of the established order and ethics.
Hence, Venom’s Satanism and “malice” represents themselves first and foremost as an anti- and protest stance. Its impact is the shock, meaning an aesthetic experience in which sensation (the motion of the artwork towards the beholder or listener) and not contemplation (the motion of the beholder or listener into the artwork) is paramount.
This appreciation of sensation as opposed to contemplation complies with Walter Benjamin’s diagnosis from the 1930s on the art of the 20th century in general. Benjamin talks about an observed destruction of the aura in this context.
He understands the term ‘aura’ as the way how traditional art has been seen and experienced. Two elements are important in this context, without going into too much detail on Benjamin’s multilayered and fairly complex term of ‘aura’:
1. The beholder immerses him/herself into the work within the experience of the auratic artwork. This is contemplation.
2. What that the beholder experiences during his/her immersion into the work contains not only closeness, but always also insurmountable distance. Something never completely comprehensible is constantly indicated, something, that therefore remains a secret.
When Benjamin speaks about a destruction of the aura in relation to the art of the modern age, he mainly thinks about the effect of at the time still new art forms such as photography and especially film. But he also sees similar tendencies in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The images of film or the fragmented expression of Baudelaire’s poetry face the beholder, function as shocks. The constant sensations that the beholder is confronted with make it impossible to contemplatively immerse oneself into the work. It is not the beholder anymore who immerses him/herself into the artwork, but the artwork comes toward the beholder and figuratively punches him/her in the face. The works themselves resemble ruins: they are multi-fragmented within themselves and cannot readily be put together to a whole again.
For Benjamin, this development is in no way negative. On the contrary, only this development gives the sensation of humans of the modern age a way to be expressed as this sensation is exposed to the constantly increasing pace of the metropolis and of the machines.
The simple and aggressive music that is played in punk or by a band like Venom, adding the part ironic, part serious play with evil, with pentagrams, devil’s grimaces, fantasies of violence and smashed bass guitars at concerts, could certainly be seen as a radical musical-visual counterpart to the developments in art 50 years ago as described by Benjamin. Shock and provocation take center stage, and from an aesthetic view point the focus lies on the destruction of enjoying art through immersion. What is more, the moment of irony that always resonates within Venom’s work despite all provocation corresponds with the broken work that Benjamin observed in film or Baudelaire’s work.
However, the aesthetic effect of black metal already changes with bands like the Swiss black and death metal pioneers Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, and even more distinctively with the Swedish one-man-band Bathory.
One can observe a tendency away from pure provocation towards an atmospherically charged celebration of evil that found its continuation and culmination in the black metal bands that started raging especially in Scandinavia in the 1990s.
Listening to Mayhem, the difference to Venom’s wild party music becomes evident. This is much more serious, atmospheric and eerie. This goes not only for the music but also for the whole attitude that is expressed through appearance, lyrics, interviews, clothing style or cover artworks.
While Venom’s Satanism was mostly characterized by a rebellious anti-attitude, evil now emerges as an own field: a parallel world that one enters and adjusts to. Evil is not only just the opposite of the established anymore that one turns against itself through shocking provocation, but it claims its own reality and rules. Therefore, I propose that an actual mimesis of evil in the aesthetic space takes place.
Mimesis is a central term especially for Adorno’s aesthetic theory and means as much as an approximation to the same. Adorno understands mimesis as one of the two main principles also and especially in modern art, whereby production-aesthetically mimesis stands opposite of construction and impact-aesthetical expression. Mimesis portrays the attempt to approximate oneself to the other through alignment and to therefore not simply penetrate it but to become it; expression on the other hand is the attempt of the other to communicate, to show itself. Hence, shock would be an especially extreme form of expression.
Deliberately provocative and aggressive shock moments can still be found in the music, appearance and lyrics of Mayhem & Co. But they are embedded into an atmospheric whole. They rise from a dark soil that – equivalent to the traditional auratic artwork – evades the listener constantly despite the proximity. The rapid speed of the songs is condensed into a monotonous and continuously repetitive soundscape that invites the listener to immerse him/herself into the thus created, dark, aesthetic space. To sum up: The atmosphere that unfolds through the mimesis of evil again caries moments of the auratic art experience within itself.
One could say that already the term ‘evil’ unfolds an auratic effect by always and essentially evading conceivability of its meaning: Superficially evil might be a collective term for the evils in the world. In the history of philosophy, the term is often understood purely negative: as the absence of good, the incomplete, the defective, the deficient, the inferior, the disorderly, the dysfunctional. One can also understand it as the radical threat that we humans are constantly facing in our life and against which we ultimately cannot do anything: pain, illness, experiences of violence, death. Evil, after all, is an ethical concept that describes the opposite of once established societal values: in Christian terminology evil is the sin. In a more or less secular, humanistic society, it is the sacrilegious, the egoistic, the conscious decision to make others suffer.
Yet, if one sticks with the term ‘evil’, these multifold evils get a different ring than if one separately lists the things that seem threatening to us as individuals or as a society. Evil demands its own reality. By calling the ills evil, they receive an intangible, completely inexplicable quality, they are awarded their own power. This power is not only unaffected by the enlightened rationality but evades and opposes it in a completely unassailable way.
Evil becomes a mysterious space in which everything that has been rejected and repressed by the enlightenment, rationality and civilizational progress is deposited and continues to grow below the surface of decency. Yet, the belief in actual devils and demons has irreversibly forfeit its power. Therefore, the arbitrary evil can, if it does not want to appear childish naïve, ultimately only be experienced aesthetically, namely in an auratic sense - as close distance. In this experience, especially the threatening, the inhumane of evil in its inconceivability and overwhelming endlessness can be fascinating in a sublime way.
In the history of philosophy by and large a separation of the bad from the clasp of the term ‘evil’ takes place. During civilizational progress and enlightenment we have learned to approach and explain also and especially that what threatens us through the principles of rationality. The course of Western thinking leads away from the idea of evil: While the so-called Gnosis still assumed the existence of two opposed principles to explain everything bad in the world – a evil creator god and a good healer god – Church Father Augustin already explained the bad with the freedom of human kind that also includes the freedom to sin.
Leibniz reduced evil to the necessary evil in the best of all possible worlds, naming ours as the best. Hegel and even more clearly Marx see the bad as the negative driving force of history: It that within the necessary progress of human history needs to be rationally explained, practically approached and finally expelled. This expulsion has failed miserably.
Adorno und Max Horkheimer only announce the evident when they start their book ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’(published 1944) with the by now famous sentence: “Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” However, nothing changes the way we principally handle what we fear, what scares us, what makes us suffer: We try to face all problems rationally in order to not get dizzy from looking into the abyss, and to make evil where we cannot eliminate the bad at least understandable and comprehensible.
Hence, evil as an independent power and explanation is overcome during enlightenment. And exactly because of that evil accrues aesthetic potential: adhering to it gains its own fascination and rebellious power. In black metal, a rediscovery of evil – under this or another name – takes place as an own principle in the aesthetic space. Evil becomes inexplicable, inconceivable, evil again, and therefore becomes an impacting and creative principle itself. The chaos it threatens discovers its own aesthetics and order.
Despite all its brutality, this music carries a hypnotic, atmospheric might. The listener is put into a trance-like, delirious state that sweeps one away, that one gets lost in, or into a dream in which the bad and the evil cannot harm you.
Intoxication and dream are the two states of mind that a young Nietzsche describes as the two driving forces of art in ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ and that he attributes with names of ancient gods: the Dionysian for the state of intoxication and the Apollonian for the state of the dream.
The young Nietzsche interprets the Dionysian in the succession of Arthur Schopenhauer as a state in which the principium individuationis collapses for a moment for the one experiencing it. Meaning, in a Dionysian intoxication the world is not perceived as separate single objects and entities but as a uniform entity of all things and all life. During intoxication, one merges with the world altogether.
The Apollonian visions stand for the principle of individuation, the strong self that differentiates itself from its surroundings. The dream and its images offer refuge from the rush of Dionysian intoxication through which the principle of life is questioned. Yet, in Dionysian music and then later in the Attic tragedy these opposed drivers of the Dionysian and Apollonian unite, and something not yet felt gets an expression: the overcoming of the principle of individuality becomes a perceptible experience.
Nietzsche re-interprets the Dionysian experience in later works: It is mentioned already in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ that in the Dionysian the immutability of life in all its apparent vicissitudes of the same dissolves. This experienced realization of the overflowing force of life, interpreted as its eternal recurrence, then appears in ‘Twilight of the Idols’ as actual substance of the Dionysian intoxication. The intoxication now becomes the only physiological precondition for any aesthetic action. Intoxication is no longer seen as the momentary dissolution of the principium individuationis but on the contrary as an exaggerated feeling of self, as a feeling of being able to impose the power of the own self onto the entire world.
However, the celebration of life by especially the later Nietzsche remains alien to black metal. Also musically most black metal bands to not actually wander on Nietzschean paths.
Music like Burzum's lives from its deliberate minimalism and the monotony of repetition. One looks for an orgiastic, exuberant celebration of life and generosity in vain. The intoxication in which this music can put us in envelops us in an atmosphere that more often than not seems to comply more with Schopenhauer’s ascetic negation of life rather than late Nietzsche’s affirmation of life.
This atmospheric immersion carries cold and desperation, darkness and vague fear, and stops any dance steps that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra commends to his brothers in their tracks. The vortex that inclined listener is drawn into by the music of Burzum and other black metal bands resembles the vertigo of a gyro, constantly turning on its tip, that Søren Kierkegaard describes the state of the demonic with.
If black metal now gushes into something like a Dionysian intoxication, then this intoxication is fundamentally different from the one in which the self triumphs by the late Nietzsche. But it is also not the dissolution of the Principium Individuationis that Schopenhauer and the early Nietzsche strive for. Within the intoxication of black metal, the listener remains alone, completely on his/her own, detached from others and thereby also not appropriating them.
If anything, a complete relationship to oneself sets in, begins to revolve around oneself and thus accomplishes exactly the movement of the demonic that Kierkegaard describes. The demonic of Kierkegaard desperately wants to be himself, without ever reaching himself. This is his own, continuously perpetuating despair.
In black metal however, this despair becomes part of the Dionysian intoxication and it envelopes the listener certainly as atmosphere, but evades him/her, who remains a beholder only, constantly and remains as a secret. Because of this close distance, the despair is not only seen as frightening, but it is also experienced as tempting. The aesthetic experience that takes place this way is different from the shocking through its atmospheric impact that the listener succumbs to. He/She immerses him/herself, and within it he/she senses an equally threatening and tempting secret, that evades him/her despite all the proximity.
The aesthetic experience in black metal is also different from the auratic one that Benjamin detects in traditional artworks. With those, the beholder or listener enters a contemplative relationship with a distinct work. In black metal however, the work atmospherically dissolves into an infinite landscape that does not know any clear outlines. The dissolving experience of the Dionysian intoxication and the auratic one of the evading secret coalesce.
While the traditional auratic artwork corresponded with the Apollonian dream in its experience, in black metal at least the return of the auratic occurs as the Dionysian-atmospheric, and namely not in the spirit of celebrating life but in the spirit of the demonic.
It doesn’t stop there. The Dionysian intoxication pushes beyond the realm of the aesthetic. Within it, the border between art and life are always questioned or torn down. This development also takes place in the black metal scene of the 1990s. The artistically created abysses become real and enmesh the scene in suicides, church burnings and murders.
[ Not translated here: A brief overview of the church burnings, suicides and murders in the Scandinavian black metal scene of the 1990s as I assume everyone reading this knows about those already.]
If one looks at the development in the black metal scene one can hardly help thinking that the carefully staged parallel world slipped from the hands of those that were part of its creation. The desperate desire to be oneself that according to Kierkegaard constitutes the demonic, starts to be fooled by the illusion of the staging. This staging puts itself in lieu of the self that one desperately wants to be, and the aesthetically staged demon in its attempted incarnation is shattered by the trivial inviolability of reality.
The demon that raises from the aesthetic space is immediately decapitated. As amazing as the aesthetic of the flames might be, and as much as the burnt beams of the churches can be integrated into eeriness lost, the burning churches are not the beacon of a new awakening. On the contrary, once the fire is extinguished, disillusionment spreads.
The media attention for the phenomenon of black metal is massive, yet instead of glory and honor long prison sentences were awaiting many of the scene’s protagonists. Some of the crucial characters such as Burzum’s Varg Vikernes turn towards crude racialist motivated pagan theories, and the creative lightheartedness of the early years is lost. There are still bands with an extraordinary output and innovative ideas, but the creative allure of total destruction that shaped the early years of this second wave of black metal can never be recovered. The burning churches therefore stand not for a new beginning and a creative boost but for the end of a cycle.
And yet, the successive bands and musicians do not only (probably not even really) run the risk of falling into recurring real violence again - the risk of crashing into the other extreme is much higher: the harmlessness of kitsch. In the art world, kitsch is what a green salad without sauce is in the kitchen: It doesn’t harm anyone, no one is discouraged from eating it, but it does not really give any pleasure.
The demonic, exorcised by enlightenment and civilizational progress, is resurrected as aesthetic presentation within black metal. But this resurrection is only eerie, menacing and fascinating if it leaves room for the illusion to possibly be. The domain of what is possible collapses when the presentation becomes plain reality - despite the terrible consequences – or in reverse, when it is self-sufficient and degenerates to a wax figure in the cabinet of horrors.
Yet, is it possible to create an aesthetic of “evil” that allows it to keep its spikes? That isn’t just a ghost train but neither a real massacre? That allows evil to remain in its atmosphere without it becoming encroaching for real? And vice versa: Can the enlightened civilization allow within itself for the other to exist in its expression and fascination and atmosphere, without pruning it, without fearfully looking at it yet without letting itself being overpowered in reality?
After Nietzsche pursued radical skepticism in his intermediate creative phase, he dedicates himself to staging in his late work: He proclaims the overcoming of the existing in the character of the Übermensch. But it is important to point out that for Nietzsche the return of the staged illusion that is taking place with the announcement of the Übermensch in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ is skeptically penetrated.
It remains grounded in the radical deconstruction of all so-called realities, ethical values and metaphysical interpretation that Nietzsche undertook in ‘Human, All Too Human’ and in ‘The Gay Science’. No matter how much Zarathustra and his pathetic plea for the reevaluation of all values and the Übermenschen develop a momentum and own power, they are seen as something set, an interpretation after all interpretation and ethics have been exposed as mere judgements of taste.
The great skepticism has begun its triumph and has – as retrospectively mentioned in ‘Ecce Homo’ – not just refuted all idealism (origin, goal, sense, meaning, death, height, eternity) but has put them on ice for them to freeze. Now the sensual “evil” that is present in skepticism begins another game, a new joy and desire in deceit, the lie, the illusion and the game: “a mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art” as stated in ‘The Gay Science’.
If illusion now is rehabilitated, so differently from Hegel and Adorno, more radical: illusion does not become a condition for artworks to express truth but the illusion of art – or rather the world as an entity seen as an artwork in all its illusion - is more correct than all truth which always only is a symptom. There is nothing higher or lower than life in its illusion. In ‚Ecce homo‘ Nietzsche calls this insight „a rebirth in the art”.
Giorgio Colli, publisher of the Critical Nietzsche edition, interpreted the late ‘Dionysian-Dithyrambs’ (Nietzsche’s largest poetry collection) as a result of the dismissal of all truth. In works such as ‘Human, All Too Human’: “Now that all truth has been dismissed the path remains open for the lie of poetry, exactly after Nietzsche’s perspective.” [Ed. Translated by me, not original translation] Zarathustra then announces himself: „ But granting that some one did say in all seriousness that the poets lie too much: he was right—WE do lie too much.”
What poets or musicians create is not less serious or important, quite the opposite. Illusion of staging and creativity in creation of new truths and values have however also passed through the school of doubt. In it a self-confidence of skepticism arose that only now permits the by all means serious play with the at the same time penetrated illusion. The staging of the lies of the poet are therefore concretely grounded in the confident cold of skepticism. By never fully believing themselves, they leave all space for the possible
The for Nietzsche crucial skeptical attitude is at least still ambivalent in black metal:
On the one hand, black metal develops its creative potential in stark rejection of everything that established society offers in values and ethical concepts. This is still the legacy of a band like Venom. Negation forms a starting point to turn towards “evil” as defined by established ethics and norms. This is a fundamentally critical, yet nowhere near skeptical attitude. But the possibility to soar towards a skeptical nihilism, that that also would ground the mimesis of evil, exists. On the other hand, out of provocation and rejection approaches of an own ontology are developing in black metal. The problem is the following:
The aesthetics of evil is as interesting and fascinating as ever. But in order to remain credible, a body, an essence, essentiality is needed: Figures of the devil, of Satan, of demons or as with some representative of black metal – also Hitler and Stalin. Nicolai Hartman said about malice: “No one does evil for evil’s sake, it is always a good (something valuable), which hoveres before him.” The problem does not lie in resorting to such embodiments of evil, but it becomes problematic when one does not see through the illusion of such stagings anymore, if one wants to abolish them in their alleged realization or to turn them into an absolute in their convenient surface shape.
Therein probably lies the reason for the in parts observable proximity of black metal to identarian, reactionary and at times open far-right ideologies, and from this the bloody events in Norway could arise. This is why, in reverse or even simultaneously, the menacing atmosphere can freeze as a kitschy surface without secrets. The evil, nihilistic serenity that is destructive against the old but experiments with the new that Nietzsche never fully gives up at least as a writer, is thereby lost.
The aesthetic mimesis onto evil that is celebrated in black metal is a constant spread between mere kitsch and a vortex of real violence. If one succeeds to remain in this balancing act, one can develop enormous aesthetic potential and remain dangerous in the true sense of the word.
On this thin line, black metal unfurls an actual mimesis of evil in the aesthetic space: an approximating aesthetic of a rupture of civilization, and within it an aesthetic of the by enlightened rationality repressed, tabooed, forgotten, suppressed; a nihilistic glance into an abyss in which lust and desperation, horror and promise of the possible have united in inseparable darkness. The allure of this balancing act lies within its instability.