Below is the draft of an interview on Hideous Gnosis, to be published in the Finnish metal magazine Miasma.
1. What are motives and agendas behind the book Hideous Gnosis? How does it come into existence?
The book is based on the black metal theory symposium that I organized last year. Being a compilation of papers and other documents related to the event, the volume presents a variety of approaches to black metal (theological, philosophical, political, cultural, journalistic, artistic) and addresses many different topics: revelation, catholicity, non-knowledge, apocalyptic humanism, the dissolution of the cosmos, decay, telluric ideology, acephalicism, USBM, wolves, ritual, demonology, confession.
The basic impulse behind the project, which the contributions fulfill in different ways, is a desire for a form of theoretical discourse about black metal that treats it, not only as an object of intellectual understanding (academia), nor only as a subject of emotional veneration (fandom), but rather in a manner that messes up the boundary between black metal and theory, vitalizing and necrotizing them for individual and collective needs. I indicate this on the Black Metal Theory blog with the following definition: “Not black metal. Not theory. Not not black metal. Not not theory. Black metal theory. Theoretical blackening of metal. Metallic blackening of theory. Mutual blackening. Nigredo in the intoxological crucible of symposia” (blackmetaltheory.blogspot.com
). The desire for black metal theory is a desire for a ‘third thing’ born from the intercourse of black metal and theory. On the one hand, black metal theory is something new. On the other hand, it is only the actualization of something that both theory and black metal already are (particularly for the intellectual metalhead who practices them simultaneously). The book is motivated by a desire to make something new out of the recognition of this twin fact, namely, that black metal is a form of thought and theory is a form of music at a mutually disclosable location. That this place appears both unintelligible and obvious to academics and metal fans alike only confirms its worth. (These issues are also discussed in the volume, especially by Scott Wilson.) If Black Metal ist Krieg [black metal is war] (Nargaroth), black metal theory as I intend it is not so much the theory of war, but theory as war, a blackened, genre-specific battlezone for mutual hostile metallic takeovers between music and philosophy.
Beyond this general intention, the project took on a vague life and character of its own in the aura of its chosen name and related epigraphs. Hideous Gnosis is borrowed from the title of a song by Caïna, a song which expresses a kind of negative revelation near the disappearance or death of God: “I've seen demons / And I've been shown things that no-one should see / And I know why birds alight from cables with no-one beneath / Who's on the side of the angels / Who's on the side of Satan / God's not there anymore / I know why birds fly / No-one's there anymore” (Caïna, “Hideous Gnosis,” Mourner [Profound Lore Records, 2007]). I associated this phrase with several passages that seem to have helped ‘set the mood’ for the project:
Why do you compel me to divulge things that would better remain unknown to you? (Silenus)
He is not a return to the past; he has undergone the corruption of the “present-day man” and nothing has more place within him than the devastation which it leaves . . . the memory of Plato, of Christianity and above all—the most hideous—the memory of modern ideas, extend behind him like fields of ashes. But between the unknown and him has been silenced the chirping of ideas, and it is through this that he is similar to “ancient man”: of the universe he is no longer the rational (alleged) master, but the dream. (Georges Bataille)
But suddenly the Mirror went altogether dark, as dark as if a hole had opened in the world of sight, and Frodo looked into emptiness. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)
The black tablet of vision, I hold dear for the sake / That to the soul, it is a book of the picture of the dark mole of Thine. (Hafiz)
Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. (H.P Lovecraft)
These constellated around two images I used to present the event. One was a painting my wife made a couple years ago on behalf of E.S.S.E. (The Eternal Secret Society of Entities) entitled Murder Devour I:
It shows a humanoid monster or wild man figure rising out of a forest with a large crystal piercing his right eye. In front of him is a bird perched on two small crystals, with another crystal piercing its left eye. The image signifies many things about the nature of animal/human existence that I will not go into here, but in this context it provided two important things: 1) a picture of the voracious spirit of the black metal forest, an ancient entity with an appetite for creative destruction; and 2) an image of a form of vision that violently crushes and transcendently reconfigures the eye, which as the word-play of the title suggests, is also the “I” or ego as the locus of limited sight. In this form of vision, the eye/I is not what illuminates or penetrates into its object. Rather the eye/I, figuring mind or the intellectual principle, is here penetrated by the impenetrable, pierced by an intense crystal that in the same instant destroys and weaponizes the eye/I with its own form, making it a projector of crystals. The other image I used to orient the project was an inverted photograph of a Tower of Silence or dakhma, the raised and enclosed structure used by Zoroastrians to dispose of human corpses by exposure to vultures and the sun:
Inverting the photo imaginatively reverses the body-bleaching process into one of blackening or nigredo, “the intial, black stage of the opus alchymicum in which the body of the impure metal . . . or the old outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form” (Lyndy Abraham, Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery). I tend to think of black metal in terms of nigredo in two ways: 1) musically, as an aesthetic process of stripping heavy metal down to an essential and incommunicable potent negativity; and 2) philosophically, as a stance towards the world that insistently encounters it, seeks its ‘truth’, at its nadir or lowest point. A relation between the tower of silence and metal is also scarred into my mind because it is there that the spiritual master Meher Baba banged his head as a young man during a process of coming down to normal consciousness after self-realization: “in 1915, Merwan started a grim habit which was to last the entire seven years of coming down to normal consciousness. Every day Merwan would regularly strike his forehead on the stone floor of his room for hours. Some days in the afternoon, between one and five o'clock, he would go to the Golibar district of Poona or to the Tower of Silence where, sitting under a tree, he would continue this gruesome ritual—knocking his forehead on a rock or against a stone wall! He was not merely tapping his head on the stone surface, but with full force would pound and pound his brow upon it—always inflicting a bloody wound. After knocking his head hour after hour against stone, Merwan would collapse. He would then wipe the blood off his face and clean himself, then tie a kerchief around his forehead to serve as a bandage and a turban, thus concealing the wound from his family before returning home. . . . Once when Merwan was banging his head on the floor at home, his mother heard a thudding sound coming from his room. . . . Merwan had blood all over his face. Crying she asked, ‘Merog, have you gone mad? Are you totally mad?’ Wiping the blood off with a towel, he said, ‘I am not mad! I have become something else!’ . . . [He later explained that] ‘This constant hammering of my head was the only thing that gave me some relief during my real suffering of coming down—which I have repeatedly said is indescribable’” (Bhau Kalchuri, Meher Prabhu). And in the Tower of Silence image there are also birds, figuring of course the chirping symposiasts, the metallectuals, gathered in grim friendship around the feast of the black metal corpus.
Perhaps this does not explain the motives and agendas behind the book, mostly because the project for me is about doing it, rather than trying to accomplish some objective result. As for what the volume does accomplish, the individual essays speak for themselves. But at least this gives a sense of the practical process I followed to help bring this black metal theory thing about.
This is a significant question which can only be answered with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Of course there can be, and must be, black metal theories of various shapes and sizes, not only because people are prone to theorizing it, but above all because black metal itself is rabidly and essentially theoretical. Indeed black metal is distinguished, independently of its themes and styles, by a special kind of musical relation to theory, by which I mean speculative thinking (from theorein, to look at, speculate). Black metal has a ‘sound’, but this sound is only hearable, it only fills your ears as black metal, not only because of the powerful generic idea of black metal that makes it recognizable as such, but more deeply and immediately because the sound viscerally generates theoretical dispositions within the listener, in short, the sound of black metal is heard as the sound of theory. This relates to the fact that black metal is a musical form where the distinction between sound and sense is simultaneously maximized and minimized to intensity. Thus on the one hand black metal is a totally intrinsic immanence that transcends any and all meaning. It is pure black fucking metal, something that simply possesses your mind and displaces your soul. On the other hand black metal is all about the ideas that define it. Which is why black metal is typically judged and valorized and classified according to its informing philosophies and ideologies, this black metal vs. that black metal. Black metal is a self-contradictory substance, something paradoxically nothing other and wholly other than the music it is. Listening to it—and the musician is also listener and vice-versa, playing what he hears—one hears the concept, not developed and elaborated the way systematic thinking likes to have it, but broken and lacerated and disarticulated in a way that makes it more alive. Black metal tortures the idea, the logos, and plays the sound of its scream as a revelation exceeding all cognition of it. The ideas of black metal are not properly themes or concepts that the music and its adjunct crafts merely express or treat of, not something about which they say something meaningful or useful. Instead the concepts of black metal is black metal itself in a weird way that is difficult to express. This can be defined by saying that black metal is not a thing but a function that puts humans into terrifying and ecstatic relation to the impossible identity of thought and being. Now there are some people who want this relation to remain individually and collectively unconscious, who uphold it precisely by saying that black metal, like true love, is something one not only cannot but should not talk about, as if to talk about it is to transgress and contaminate its essence. In one sense they are correct, insofar as they are upholding crucial ontological distinctions between what can be said and what can only be shown, and more profoundly, between the nameable and the unnamable. But most of the time, for the simple reason that most humans are habitually self-deluding and narrow-minded, this position is inauthentically upheld by persons with a vested egoistical and/or materialistic interest in remaining unconscious about the nature of their love of black metal, a love that is often sadly covered over and confused in the ‘metal culture’ with slavish lusts of various kinds. By contrast, I pursue black metal theory, not as a way of explaining or clarifying what black metal is, not as an ‘expert’ who would disclose its secrets, but as an art of instensifying what it is, above all to the point of becoming pleasurably bewildered as to the difference between black metal and theory. This points back to the deeper meaning of being a metalhead: banging your head in the heavy sonic furnace until it becomes metal, a substance capable of holding a real edge. Reza Negarestani, in the project description for the volume of black metal commentary we are editing for the journal Glossator, beautifully signals this process of intensification as “bask[ing] in the speculative glory of the problematic.”
I do not know. Whatever it is, it is something that takes many forms. But the manner in which black metal produces hideous gnosis may be explained by comparing it to the Weirding Module in Dune (the David Lynch film, not the book). Black metal works like an inverted weirding module. Where the weirding module amplifies the sound of a thought into a destructive force, black metal translates antagonistic energy into the sound of terrifying thought. This thought is not a concept or a meaning, but a seeing or perception of something illuminated by a certain kind of fear, hence hideous gnosis. Not the ordinary kind of fear that is only exacerbated worry about an object. But a kind of total, objectless fear that suspends everything in an all-pervading yet strangely calm ontological panic, the experience of which assumes different imaginative forms, visions of speculative knowledge. For example: seeing in a flash that the whole universe is burning, burning, burning, and we and all other entities are burning with it, like an enormous pyramid of flaming severed heads lovingly assembled by a great conqueror in the cosmic night.
A fertile proliferation of heresies heralding the dawn of a new Dark Age.
My historical grasp of the genre is fairly weak, due in part to my inclination to listen to black metal and other kinds of music from different periods as if it is all being played right now, as if it is all my black metal. This seems like a very American trait!—poor grasp of historicity, a background sense of life as unconditioned by chronological necessities, North American individualism-exceptionalism, inordinate and naïve feeling of self-centered entitlement, etc.—so maybe there is a good answer hiding inside of it. Namely, that North American black metal is deeply syncretic, albeit in a historically predictable Eurocentric way. Like the still more or less medieval people who settled these territories, the American black metalhead tends to seek harmony rather than contradiction within his departure from what he reinvents. Where the tendency of European black metal is anti-ecclesiastical and fascist, the tendency of American black metal is spiritual and apolitical—a tendency that also seems reflected in the conspicuous ‘isolationist’ presence of solo artists, hordes of one: Absonus Noctis, Crebain, Draugar, Idolator, Judas Iscariot, Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice, Panopticon, Xasthur, Sapthuran, Woe, et al. An overgeneralization of course, and I welcome all contradictory counterexamples. Perhaps now there is a drift into new kinds of collective endeavors and events—a desire to break from black metal as entertainment. The amazing Gathering of Shadows event, held in the woods in the South Platte region of the Rocky Mountains, is a striking example of esoteric red neck nature mysticism. And then there are artsy urban actions, like Wold’s recent performance at Matthew Barney’s waterfront studio warehouse, which was prefaced by a wrestling match and a Nietzschean sermon/essay on the subject of the screech owl. This question is also addressed from various perspectives in the volume, especially by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Steven Shakespeare, and the musicians interviewed in Brandon Stosuy’s oral history project.
Black metal inhabits many contexts simultaneously. I do not see the need for objectively placing it, like a curator or librarian, in this or that category. Obviously it is multidimensional art form that includes music, images, words, ideas, fashion, social rituals, commerce, etc. But as to whether it is more proper to the music world or to the art world, definitely the former. It is art, but its authority in the ‘art world’, in the sense of the world that is largely governed by galleries, curators, collectors, and critics, derives wholly from its being a form of popular music, that is, of music produced and consumed by individual people relatively independently of their social and economic relation to each other. I think the fascination with black metal in the art world has a lot to do with its appeal as a form of decadent ascesis, to its offering a kind of sonic-aesthetic hair-shirt one can virtually wear without contaminating, and maybe increasing, the pleasures of an aimless comfortable lifestyle.
I love black metal very much and listen to it all the time. Here are some songs that have recently moved me in different ways, in alphabetical order: Absu, “Four Crossed Wands,” Tara (Exhibit V); Absurd, “Mourning Soul,” Facta Loquuntur; Adorior, “Ritualized Combat (Sin, Sin, Sin),” Author of Incest; Akitsa, “Prophétie Hérétique,” Prophétie Hérétique; Arizmenda, “Poison Yourself . . . With Thought,” Within the Vacuum of Infinity; Ash Pool, “A Sacrifice Consumed by Fire,” For Which He Plies The Lash; Avsky, “Cleanse the World, Malignant; Be Persecuted, “Be Resented for Livelihood,” I.I; Benighted, “Vibration of My Thoughts,” Avgrundshjarta; Bethlehem, “Aphel – Die schwarze Schlange,” Dictius Te Necare; Burzun, “Jesus’ Tod,” Filosofem; Circle of Ghosts, “Morning Walk,” The Art of Decay; Defuntos, “A Morbida Valsa da Loucura,” A Negra Vastidao das Nossas Almas; Gnome, “La Foret (I/II),” Under the Blackmoon; Heartless, “Journey to Eternal,” Suicidal Engagement; Inflabitan, “Illusjonen,” Wanderer of Grief; Inquisition, “Unholy Magic Attack,” Into the Infernal Regions of the Ancient Cult; Ludicra, “Userpent,” Hollow Psalms; Malign, “Sinful Fleshspear,” Divine Facing-Fireborn; Mgła, “I,” Groza; Nargaroth, “Herbstleyd,” Herbstleyd and “Somer,” Jahreszeiten; Nightbringer, “Feast of the Manes,” Death and the Black Work; Osirion, “Sixieme Pilier,” Reconquista; Skagos, “Blossoms Will Sprout From the Carcass,” Est; Xasthur, “Instrumental,” Xasthur; Zemial, “The Tears that Wet Gesthemane,” For the Glory of UR.
The book has received very positive feedback and two strong reviews, one from Aquarius Records and another by Mark Fisher in The Wire (see blog for text). I am told that other reviews are in the works from Culture Machine, Current Musicology, Natt&Dag, Mute Magazine, and Lars Gotrich (NPR). The symposium also received some negative online feedback before it took place by persons who do not like the idea of intellectual engagement with black metal. Many of their comments are included in the volume. As I said above, their position holds a degree of philosophical interest. But overall the fussing seems to be symptomatic of a consumerist culture wherein persons find themselves, like babies feeling forced to eat, resorting to complaint as a way of maintaining a negative, pseudo-sense of self-worth. Worry, and the useless criticism it generates, is an enormous waste of personal energy that could be used for say, more heroic purposes, a heady form of mental suffering that is a natural, but not inevitable, counterpart of material excess. Of course the criticism has only provided further matter for valuable reflection. It will be interesting to see if the book receives any attention among scholars who are not already into black metal. The book is intellectual, but not exactly academic, more like para-academic, the result of people doing what they do, but in an unofficial and more mobile capacity. So far there seem to be four basic responses to black metal as theoretical site: instant love, immediate hate, vague sense that it ‘sounds cool,’ total cluelessness.
9. There will be second Black Metal Theory Symposium next year. What we can expect?
The symposium, entitled Melancology, will take place in London on 13 January, 2011. It is being organized by Scott Wilson and Niall Scott and will feature a lecture by Reza Negarestani as well as a performance by Abgott (http://www.myspace.com/abgott
). I am very happy to hear that the band is composing something specifically for the event. Scott and Niall also plan to edit and publish a volume based on the symposium. Details, including a description of the environmental and ecological concept of melancology, are available online. Now that the first seed (or mold-spore or worm) of black metal theory has been growing, I expect the event to be bigger and blacker than the last.
10. Are there some other future plans too?
My hope and intention is for the black metal theory symposium to continue as an annual winter event, hosted by different people in different places. This will also be an alternative and more practical way of structuring intellectual work. Rather than starting any kind of centralized association or journal, we share the responsibility for organizing and publishing in a more flexible and open way. Also, the special issue of Glossator (glossator.org) which I mentioned before will be published in Spring 2012. The volume features seventeen individual commentaries on specific black metal works, mostly by philosophers.