Sunday, February 24, 2008

Black Metal As Play (pt. 2)

What can be learned about Black Metal if we discus it along the lines of the four types of play identified by Roger Caillois?


Of course, a certain amount of rivalry is always part of any music scene; competitiveness between different localities (East vs. West Coast), countries, bands and even opera singers and classical composers (Bononcini vs. Händel) is far from unusual in the history of music. Thus, it is not surprising that competition has been part and parcel of Black Metal ever since it's Dream Time origins in Norway.

Norwegian Black Metal crowds were antagonistic to Swedish Black Metal crowds, so much so that when Euronymous was murdered many were suspicious of the Swedes. A brief conflict between Norwegian and Finnish scenes from 1992 to 1993 was known as
the "Dark War". Black Metal strove to prove it's superiority to Death Metal. Black Metal as a religious undertaking sought out conflict with Christianity.

All this is well within the bounds of the usual in music. What is remarkable about Black Metal is how that competitiveness got out of hand.

These competitive games overflew the boundaries of their musical and religious arenas and degenerated into violence, directed both internally as well as towards religious, racial and sexual Others: Euronymous was murdered, Bård Eithun killed a homosexual man in a park in Lillehammer, Churches went up in flames and NSBM reared it's ugly head.


Games of chance seem to play no important role in Black Metal's web of significance. Perhaps though it's orientation towards Satanism and Paganism (Asatru and Wotanism specifically) reveal a connection to Caillois' concept of Alea. Can Black Metal's use of these religious cultures be described as 'superstitious attempts to manipulate fate'?


Black Metal may be the most theatrical music culture.

One of the most salient features of Black Metal is the use of black and white makeup (sometimes detailed with "blood") used to simulate a corpse-like appearance: 'corpse-paint'. The way the 'corpse-paint' is applied, points towards an affinity with the use of masks in primitive society. What Caillois writes about masks, is also true of corpse-paint in Black Metal: "[Masks] emerge in festivals - an interregnum of vertigo, effervescence, and fluidity in which everything that symbolizes order in the universe is temporarily abolished (...). Masks, always fabricated secretly and destroyed after use, transform the officiants into gods, spirits, animal ancestors, and all types of creative and supernatural powers." The mask-like corpse-paint is complemented with black and spike-studded costumes whose appearance is as much dictated by tradition as the religious robes of priests.

Bands that perform live often make use of stage props: Mayhem for example adorn the stage with staked pig's heads. Most musicians employ stage names, names which point towards mimicry of mythological or folkloric figures (for example, Emperor's Bård Eithun used "Faust" as a nom-de-plume).

The corruption of Agôn in Black Metal is closely related to the corruption of Mimicry. While it may be argued that the violence of the Norwegian Black Metal inner circle is the result of Agôn overflowing it's boundaries, it can just as well be argued that the burning of churches and the killings are the result of an excess of Mimicry, the actors identifying with their roles so strongly that vainglorious histrionics lead to real-life crime.


Other than with musical cultures such as Acid House (XTC), UK Garage (Cocaine), Dub and it's offspring (Weed), Psychedelic Rock (LSD) and Punk Rock (Amphetamines), there is no powerful connection between Black Metal and a single intoxicant. Drugs do not figure strongly in Black Metal's iconography. Moynihan and Søderlind's book on Black Metal, "Lords Of Chaos", is unusual for a description of a post-1960s musical youth culture in that it features no accounts of drug use.

But that is not so say that ilinx - games of disorientation - plays no role in Black Metal; on the contrary.

As Caillois points out, mimicry and ilinx are linked together in possession cults, the performance of the role of a supernatural spirit leads to trance, frenzy, delirium. Corpse-paint, performing that one is one of the dead, points towards a cold and glittering trance. And doesn't "Freezing Moon", a song that can be seen as the foundation stone of contemporary Black Metal, points towards moon-sickness, a vertiginous intoxication with the icy light, the luminescent spirit, of the moon?

At Black Metal concerts, as the audience gives in to the intoxication of the music, they surrender to mad, tremendous and convulsive movements.

But in the final analysis it is the music itself which is vertiginous, Black Metal itself is the locus of the derangement of the senses, the distortion of the guitars distorting the rational mind, the barrage of blast beats destroying the walls of duty, truth, and reason. "The invasion of ghosts, the trances and frenzies they cause, the intoxication of fear and the inspiring of fear..." (Caillois) reach their peak in that music.


Black Metal may well be the most playful genre of Metal. In this sense, Black Metal and Gothic subcultures are closely related.

In the 'serious' music press, this playfulness is often cause for a disdainful treatment of the genre. Black Metal kultists may feel that calling their music 'playful' makes it seem childish. But Black Metal's playfulness does not lessen it's moral seriousness. Let us not forget that the grimmest of violence is part and parcel of sports; more blood has been shed in the cause of soccer - a mere game! - than all Black Metal hordes together can ever hope to spill.

More importantly, I feel Black Metal's playfulness - the fierceness of it's
Agôn, the inventiveness of it's Mimicry, the exuberance of it's Ilinx - attest to it's continued vitality.

Post scriptum

I'd like to direct your attention to Nicola Masciandaro highly interesting comment to the first post of the two-part series.

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?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spektr - Mescalyne

In 1963, author and poet Henri Michaux participated in the making of a documentary film on mescaline, "Images du monde visionnaire":

The film was produced by Laboratoires Sandoz, the company for which dr. Albert Hofmann worked when he discovered LSD by accident in 1938, and it was directed by Eric Duvivier. The film's intended audience was the medical profession. In an essay on that film ('Tempo de l'infini turbulence'), artist Jean-Jacques Lebel writes that Duvivier had never taken mescaline himself. Michaux felt the film did not adequately reflect the psychedelic experience, and created a spoken word introduction to the film which subtly undermines it.

Here, I translate part of that introduction.

"When it was proposed to make a film about mescaline hallucinations, I have declared, I have repeated and I repeat it again, that that is to attempt the impossible.
Even in a superior film, made with substantial means, with all one needs for an exceptional production, I must state beforehand the images will be insufficient. The images would have to be more dazzling, more instable, more subtle, more changeable, more ungraspable, more trembling, more tormenting, more writhing, infinitely more charged, more intensely beautiful, more frighteningly colored, more aggressive, more idiotic, more strange.
With regard to the film's speed, it should be so high that all scenes would have to fit in fifty seconds."

For the title track of their "Mescalyne" ep, French industrialized Black Metal band Spektr have sampled this very text. In using this specific sample, they raise the bar on themselves. Is their music "...more aggressive, more idiotic, more strange..." or is it "insufficient"?

In his writings on drugs Michaux writes that 'interruptions of consciousness' are characteristic of the mescaline experience. Such interruptions are echoed in the musical structure of Spektr's ep: Industrial Ambient and highly charged, aggressive and tormenting Black Metal alternate abruptly, as in the abrupt switching on and off of consciousness, as in sudden neuronic polarizations of depolarizations. The timing and dynamic of these alternations is irregular, prompting some reviewers to complain about a lack of composition. I do not agree: I believe the irregularities are intentional. I believe these irregularities purposefully mimic Michaux's description of the mescaline experience - or the mescaline experience itself.

Mescalyne is not "...more frighteningly colored...". Rather, it is a stark black and white, like their previous album "Near Death Experience". I had hoped that Mescalyne would continue down the path struck out by "Near Death Experience", which refers to musical idioms beyond Black Metal's narrow boundaries. I had hoped that - where "Near Death Experience" already incorporated funky, jazz-inflected drumming - Mescalyne would turn into a full-blown rhizomatic Black Metal, with Ambient, World Music, Jazz and Dubstep, mixed together with street noises, radio static and the sound of war into a blackened and surreal sound collage. It was not to be: Mescalyne is a little (though not much) more conventional than "Near Death Experience".

That is not to say that Mescalyne is "insufficient" - far from it! Spektr is a Sielwolf for the naughties and Mescalyne is "intensely beautiful". I especially love it's Ambient: it sounds as if Montague Rhodes James's chosen medium was music instead of story, and as if he had personally lived through the horrors of the 20th century instead of the gen
teel and sheltered world of 19th century King's College, Cambridge. "Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, 'the stony grin of unearthly malice', pursuing forms in darkness, and 'long-drawn, distant screams', are all in place...". Recommended!

Post scriptum

Here is a post on the ever-excellent Ombres Blanches blog about "Images d'un monde visionnaire".

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America (pt. 3)

In this post, the third part of a short series, I continue the exploration of the concept of 'fetishism' in Marx's thought.

In 1871, four years after the publication of the first book of Das Kapital, the British ethnologist Edward Burnett Tylor published his most influential work, "Primitive Culture". Building on the work of Charles De Brosses, Tylor considered fetishism to be a special case of animism, a form of religion in which all things are considered to have a soul: a fetish is a material object with a soul. Tylor believed that 'primitive' people are animists because they are not able to distinguish between dreams and waking consciousness. When primitives dream about dead relatives, they believe that these relatives must be alive in some non-corporeal form. The doctrine of spiritual beings developed out of dreams. And this doctrine was closely linked to the concept of the 'soul': death transformed the individual soul into a spiritual being. Because the transformative function of death is essential, the first rites of mankind we mortuary rites and ancestor worship. (Read an article on Tylor's concept of animism here).

In 1912, more than 40 years later (!), a book was published which would sound the death knell for Tylor's interpretation of fetishism: Émile Durkheim's "Les Formes Élementaires De La Vie Religieuse" (The elementary forms of religious rites). Unlike Tylor, Durkheim did not believe primitives to be blindly credulous. He pointed out that while some dreams might give rise to the idea of a spiritual double, many more dreams are resistant to an animist explanation. Further, the fact that primitives use religious ideas to explain some oneiric phenomena, does not prove that all religious ideas originate in dreams. On the contrary: far from having been able to provide religion with a fundamental idea on which it rests, animist interpretations of dreams presupposed and were the result of a religious system already constituted.

Durkheim pointed out that there is no conclusive evidence that mortuary rites and ancestor worship are in fact the oldest, most primitive forms of religion: such forms of religion have not proven to be central to the least technologically advanced of cultures.

Finally, if - as De Brosse and Tylor suppose - religion is merely based on hallucinations without any relation to reality whatsoever, it is unimaginable that religion could have molded human consciousness so powerfully and so lastingly. Saying that the primitives are mad, is no explanation at all.

Durkheim's criticism of Tylor's theory of animism has devastating consequences for Marx's concept of 'commodity fetishism' as well. Capitalists - like primitives - are not blindly credulous. Businessmen using expressions like 'an active market' and 'a sagging dollar' know full well these are merely metaphors, used to refer to complex socio-economical phenomena in a convenient shorthand. There is no evidence whatsoever that capitalist 'commodity fetishism' fulfills the same function as religion ('religious fetishism'). If that were the case, the need for religious fetishism would be the smallest in the most capitalist societies. However, the most capitalist society - that of the USA - is also a very religious one. Finally, if - as Marx states - the place commodities take in the cultural life of capitalist societies is merely based on hallucinations, it is unimaginable that these commodities would maintain such a strong hold on the popular imagination. Saying that the capitalists are mad, is no explanation at all.

Notwithstanding the fact that 'fetishism' as a theoretical concept has fallen out of use in ethnology, the concept of 'commodity fetishism' still has a powerful hold on literary theorists and social critics. In this sense, the impact that De Brosses work on fetishism has had, is only comparable to that of Sir James Frazer. The kindest explanation is that the chapter of Das Kapital which deals with commodity fetishism is relatively accessible, a chapter which doesn't require some knowledge of economics to understand. Those who are less kind might be tempted to think that the concept of 'commodity fetishism' fulfills the same role in the psychic economy of marxists as the concept of 'fetishism' did for Charles De Brosses: that is, it enables one to feel superior to a 'puerile and fearful' Other who supposedly has no stable system of value in which objects can be evaluated.

That Taussig, as an anthropologist, uses this specific part Marxist theory so unquestioningly and without reference to the genealogy of the concept, is almost unforgivable.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend Taussig's "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America".

First of all, it is very well-written: the long quote in the first of this short series of posts testifies to that.

Second, the way Taussig traces the connections between the economic situation of South American endogenous population and their Satanic cultural life is compelling. For me, it raises the question how Satanic practices in contemporary western society relate to that society's economic life.

Thirdly, reading the chapters in which Taussig presents his ethnographic material, one senses that Taussig's Marxism is already overripe, ready to burst, unable to contain the complexities and dynamism of South American cultural life. Strangely, even though 'commodity fetishism' has a prominent place in the book's title, that fetishism itself is conspicuously absent in the presented ethnographic material. The black-magical and Satanist practices of South American semi-proletarianized miners and farmers are a critique of the significance of commodities in capitalist societies in terms of their own cultural idioms; these practices themselves cannot be assimilated to commodity fetishism. The reality of field work makes his marxist orthodoxies come apart at the seams. The devil of the mines of Potosi is more powerful than the pieties of Marxism.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America (pt. 2)

Karl Marx's concept of 'commodity fetishism' takes a central place in Michael Taussig's analysis of devil worship in South America. However, in "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America", Taussig neglects to trace the genealogy of Marx's concept. This is all the more remarkable, because the concept's origin is in anthropology and Taussig is an anthropologist.

So let's trace the genealogy of 'commodity fetishism' and see what this genealogical research reveals about Taussig and Marx.


"The term, “fetish,” (...) emerged out of intercultural trading relations in West Africa in which European traders argued that Africans, unlike European Christians, had no stable system of value in which they could evaluate objects. Overvaluing apparently trifling objects such as feathers, bones, and cloth used in ritual, Africans undervalued the trade goods brought by Europeans. In this context, European Christians referred to African ritual objects as “fetishes,” a term derived from the Portuguese feitiço, referring to nefarious instruments of magic and witchcraft." (sourced here).

Fetishism as a concept was coined by Charles de Brosses. This French 17th century nobleman and academic published his dissertation "Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie" in 1760 (find the French-language text here).

The dissertation brought about an important conceptual innovation in the historiography of religions, in developing the thesis that the mythology and religious life of the ancients (in this case: the ancient Egyptians) can be understood by studying contemporary 'primitive' cultures. Underlying this thesis was the idea of a common humanity of 'black savages' and the ancients. De Brosses stressed that all man had receive intellect from God - an idea which was far from commonly accepted in his era.

For De Brosses the veneration of material objects, deemed to have sacred powers, was a universal form of religion amongst 'primitive' people, interpreting religious practices of inter alia ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Gauls, Black West-Africans, and Iriquois, as "fetishism". No explanation for the universality of fetishism was deemed necessary by De Brosses, other than the fear and insanity to which the human mind is susceptible.

Anticipating an evolutionist conception of culture, De Brosses characterized fetishist people 'puerile'.

A young Karl Marx read a German translation of 'Du culte des dieux fetiches' in 1842-1843 and based his theory of 'commodity fetishism' on it, as expanded in Das Kapital. The theory of commodity fetishism posits that fetishism is not limited to 'primitive' cultures. Technologically advanced, capitalist cultures know their own form of fetishism, and this is the fetishism of the capitalist commodity.

In capitalism like in any other society, products are created as the result of human relationships. However, in societies with a capitalist mode of production, the production process is presented as something that is abstracted from human relationships, as something that exists independently from the human world. Taussig illustrates Marx's theory with metaphors that are used for capitalist processes: the "economic climate", "an active market", "a sagging dollar". And if the production process is presented a something endowed with a life of it's own, so is the capitalist product. It appears as if it had a life independent from the humans who have created and use it. Thus, they are fetishes.

Marx: "[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (...) The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes (...), so soon as we come to other forms of production." (sourced here). In capitalism, commodities come to dominate humans and their relationships: capitalist product are venerated, almost deemed to have sacred powers - like the fetishes of De Brosse's primitives.

Like the French nobleman, Marx ascribed to an evolutionist view on human civilization, expecting mankind to outgrow capitalism and it's fetishism of commodities.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Movie madness From Italy

Baba Yaga - Corrado Farina (1973)

Il Mulino delle donne di pietra - Giorgio Ferroni (1960)

La Lama nel corpo - Elio Scardamaglia (1967)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America

From Michael Taussig's fascinating 1980 book "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America":

"In the shafts of the tin mines in the mountains around the city of Oruro, Bolivia, the miners have statues representing the spirit who owns the mines and tin. Known as the devil or as the uncle (Tio), these icons may be as small as a hand or as large as a full-sized human. They hold the power of life and death over the mines and over the miners, who conduct rites of sacrifice and gift exchange to the spirit represented by the icons - the contemporary manifestation of the precolonial power of the mountain (...).

The body is sculptured from mineral. The hands, face and legs are made from clay. Often, bright pieces of metal or light bulbs may be of glass or of crystal sharpened like nails, and the mouth gapes, awaiting offerings of coca and cigarettes. The hands stretch out for liquor. In the Siglo XX mine the icon has an enormous erect penis. The spirit can also appear as an apparition: a blond, bearded, red-faced
gringo (foreigner) wearing a cowboy hat, resembling the technicians and administrators who control the tens of thousands of miners who excavate the tin that since the late nineteenth century has made Bolivia a satellite of the world commodity market. He can also take the form of a succubus offering riches in exchange for one's soul or life (...).

Without the goodwill of this spirit, effected through ritual, both the mineral production and the miners' lives are imperiled. To say the least, this spirit owner of the mines is extraordinarily ambivalent, representing the force of life and the force of death; as the political and economic context changes, so does his ambivalence. Following the revolutionary changes and state nationalization of the mines in 1952, personalistic private ownership by the tin barons was replaced by stultifying bureaucratic control and military dictatorship, which, in some ways, have made the struggle over workers' control even more arduous and critical than it was in the days of the tin barons. Since the military takeover in 1964, the miners' rites to the spirit owner of the mine have been repressed. Asserting that they impede progress, some miners think that these rites are better forgotten. Others claim the opposite and maintain that the management suppressed the rites because they sustain proletarian solidarity and the high level of revolutionary consciousness for which the mining areas are famous."

Post scriptum

Here is a link to a YouTube video of a travel agent with some footage of a statue of the Devil in a Bolivian mine.

The first photo of the devil statue was sourced here.

The second photo of a devil statute was sourced here.

Taussig's book repeatedly quotes a line by Herbert Marcuse, which would be more at home at the excellent 'History is made at night' blog than here. I repeat the quote here nonetheless: "Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance" (from: The aesthetic dimension. Towards a critique of marxist aesthetics).