Saturday, February 23, 2008

Black Metal And Play (pt. 1)

In his best-known book, "Les jeux et les hommes" (translated as "Man, play and games"), Roger Caillois - ethnographer, writer, collector of precious stones, friend to Georges Bataille, pupil of Marcel Mauss - characterized play as " occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money". Of course, as "Les jeux et les hommes" is inspired by Bataille, waste has a positive connotation: waste provides an escape from the humdrum world of utilitarianism.

In this post and the next, I'll analyse Black Metal using Caillois' taxonomy of play-forms.

Caillois divides games into four fundamental categories: competitive games and contests (agôn), games of chance (alea), games of simulation (mimicry), and games of vertigo (ilinx).

Obviously, sports such as wrestling and games such as chess fall under the category of agôn. The point of these games is for each player to have his superiority proven in a given arena. The practice of agôn implies activity, discipline and perseverance. Other than with agôn, in alea the player cannot control the outcome. Only fate determines whether the player loses or wins; the player is passive. Alea mock meritocracy. Lotteries and roulette are examples of alea. Children's initiations and the theater can be categorized as mimicry. In these forms of play, the pleasure lies in being or passing for another. The player forgets, disguises or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another. Finally, rollercoaster rides and the dancing of dervishes are to be categorized as ilinx. These forms of play are an attempt to temporarily destroy the equilibrium of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous disorientation on the mind.

Each of these four play categories can be corrupted. Competitive games can degenerate into violence, will to power and trickery. Games of chance can be corrupted into superstitious attempts to manipulate fate. Games of simulation can lead to alienation and split personalities. Games of vertigo risk devolving into alcoholism and drug abuse.

It might seem far-fetched to analyze Black Metal with a theoretical apparatus which is aimed at games, sports and play - especially since that musical genre's dour grimness does not exactly come across as playful. But, on the other hand, Black Metal is music. The connection between music and play is already given in the fact that it is said that one plays music. As Johan Huizinga points out in his classic "Homo Ludens" both music and play lie outside the rationality of everyday life, outside the domain of need and utility. Both play and music find their value beyond reason, duty and truth. Rhythm and harmony factor both in play and in music. Music is often performed in competitions ('Idols' is merely and unusually execrable example of this); music and chance are interrelated not only in the work of John Cage but also in musical improvisation; music often mimes; and finally, music can intoxicate.

So what can be learned about Black Metal if we discus it along the lines of these four types of play?

1 comment:

Nicola Masciandaro said...

A nice question. My first thought concerns the variety of intersections between these different categories. So I want to think them as elements or dimensions, rather than types, of play. I suppose arguments can be made that in various forms of play a specific dimension dominates, but with regard to the experience of play I see them as very mixed up and interdependent, agon as operation of power over alea, ilinx as aporetic experience of mimicry (not being oneself) and so on.

My second thought is that Black Metal seems especially invested in ilinx, in the sense of producing/indulging in aesthetic/conceptual experiences which have to do with cutting away the foundations of quotidian experience, with abyss, vacuum, absence, non-dualism, apophasis, and other categories through which have to do with going affectively behind and underneath things, with accessing the placelessness of place. I am writing a paper right now called “The Sorrow of Being in The Cloud of Unknowing,” which I all about the sorrow that one is, which the text identifies as true and perfect sorrow, sorrow over the fact of one’s own existence. I think this is very very Black Metal.

My third thought is about metal more generally as invested in experiences of exuberance, which is certainly interpretable in tune with the classic definition of play as an activity which is its own end. The whole headbanger as berserker is on target here and points to the ways in which metal is about opening up a kind of ever-repeating transition or transformation from agon to ilinx. The main point of heavy metal ‘battle’ is not the fight but what happens to oneself within it, the way of being in battle, which again I would associate with apophatic mysticism, with the double negative of being “neither oneself nor someone else” (Pseudo-Dionysius).

Look forward to part 2.