Friday, February 04, 2011

Metal Studies and the Scission of the Word: A Personal Archaeology of Headbanging Exegesis

[for "metal studies" issue of Journal of Cultural Research]

 [T]he problem of knowledge is a problem of possession, and every problem of possession is a problem of enjoyment, that is, of language.[1]

My way into metal studies is bound up with desire for commentary as a form of thinking and writing that not only interprets and analyzes its object but belongs to it in a problematic and creative way. Although commentary does not generally enjoy the status of a vital mode or genre of intellectual production – a function perhaps of its own essential marginality – both its deep history and its present proliferation in new forms (blogs, hypertext, dvd, etc.) testifies to its plastic potentiality, its ability to shape by being shaped by its material. The creativity of commentary is legible in the word itself which, from comminsici (to devise, invent), indicates the power of thinking with (com-) something. Regarding the development of metal studies, commentary may thus be deployed, practically and theoretically, to productively engage the distinction between studying with and studying about metal, as well as to hold metal studies formally open to the commentarial currents of metal culture.[2] Note that this distinction is mappable onto the term ‘metal studies’ itself which can signify, not only the study of metal, but a discipline that is metal, that has the attribute of, or is inherently possessed by, metal.[3] Being not at all a scholar of heavy metal, but someone who (like most metal scholars) simply enjoys thinking and writing with metal in a more or less intellectual way, my claim in these comments is for the superior importance of this second meaning of ‘metal studies’, not as one that precludes or prevents the former, but as a force that complicates and propels it from within. This second, subversive meaning of ‘metal studies’ marks the enchanted space of heretical fidelity to metal, the noisy and unpredictable noetic mosh-pit whereby metal studies cyclonically both becomes metal and opens all disciplines to heavy metal complicity.

As its ancient legal, philosophical, and religious traditions demonstrate, commentary is deeply related to the practice of an exegetical as opposed to critical relation to texts: “What criticism does is to interpret a text by explaining it in terms of more or less remote objective contexts. . . . Exegesis, on the other hand, is text interpretation not through explanation derived from objective context alone, but through understanding derived from the text’s as well as the subject’s own subjective context. . . . Exegesis, then, never loses sight of the self-understanding fundamental to the constitution of its regions of meaning.”[4] At once perpetuating and occupying its texts, commentary is grounded in the experience of a dilated present where “content of transmission and act of transmission, what is unique and what is repeatable, are wholly identified.”[5] Now the weird personal fact I must somehow account for is that my intellectual commitment to commentary is actually causally related to my love of metal, according the following timeline of events.[6] 1986-7: I develop a habit of doing calculus homework while listening to tapes of KCMU’s mostly death and thrash metal show Brain Pain, convinced that it improved my thinking. 1988: During a unique dusk-to-dawn squid cleaning shift, I am deeply impressed by my co-worker’s subtle interpretations of Paranoid. 2000: After commenting philosophically on some metal lyrics, I joke with a fellow medievalist graduate student about writing a metal gloss. 2006: I start organizing a collaborative image and text metal commentary project that never gets off the ground. 2007-8: I write a running commentary on the ‘first’ heavy metal song.[7] 2008: I present on dexis at the Heavy Fundametalisms conference in Salzburg.[8] 2008: I start the journal Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary ( 2009: I co-organize with Reza Negarestani the Spring 2012 volume of Glossator on black metal.[9] 2009: I organize the black metal theory symposium Hideous Gnosis.

Looking back, I can now see that this strange conjunction of metal and commentary is twisted around the principle of exegesis, not in the manner of orthodox responsibility towards the object often associated with the term, but as a mode of study that is aggressively for-itself and ‘irresponsibly’ faithful to its object. Such perverted exegesis can be compared, within medieval culture, both to the condition of the heretic who willfully (mis)reads Scripture for his own ends and to the inordinate affection of the courtly lover whose selfish/transcendent obsession has little to do with the beloved herself. So does it resonate with the ringing ears of the headbanger who psycho-corporeally contemplates metal’s truth while obliterating the avenues to its understanding. This means that metal studies I want is a discipline taking place on the other side, even breaking the back of, criticism. As Agamben explains, “criticism is born at the moment when the scission [of the word] reaches its extreme point.”[10] By ‘scission of the word’ is meant the fatal split between poetry and philosophy, between “a word that is unaware . . . and enjoys the object of knowledge by representing in beautiful form, and a word that has all seriousness and consciousness for itself but does not enjoy its object because it does not know how to represent it.” Unconsciously gluing the word back together, criticism “neither represents nor knows, but knows the representation.” By contrast, metal studies in the essential  second  sense means a way of conscious criticism, a truer, inverted criticism that is turned, like a Petrine cross, upside down. Namely: a discipline that both represents and knows by unknowing the representation. Climbing the (un)holy mountain of the logos, the headbanging exegete immolates himself in the infernal lava of metal love, and lives to tell the tale.     

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Roland L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xvii.
[2] Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series and the forthcoming Black Metal Revolution book ( are prominent examples of album-commentary projects that move across this distinction.     
[3] I have formulated the rubric of ‘black metal theory’ as a third term that exploits and exacerbates this distinction: “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” (
[4] Richard A. Cohen, “Humanism and the Rights of Exegesis,” chapter 7 of Ethics, Exegesis, and Philosophy: Interpretation After Levinas (West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 239.
[5] Giorgio Agamben, “Walter Benjamin and the Demonic: Happiness and Historical Redemption,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 153.
[6] See Nicola Masciandaro, “Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy,” Collapse VI: Geo/Philosophy (2010): 20-56 and “The Severed Hand: Commentary and Ecstasy,” in Glossing is Glorious, eds. Erin Labbie and Carsten Madsen (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming).
[7] “Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’: A Gloss on Heavy Metal's Originary Song,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 9 (2009).
[8] “What is This that Stands before Me?: Metal as Deixis,” in The Metal Void: First Gatherings, eds. Niall Scott and Imke Von Helden (Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2010): 11-23.
[9] For our theorization of the relations between black metal and commentary, see “Black Metal Commentary,” in Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I, ed. Nicola Masciandaro (New York: CreateSpace, 2010): 257-66.
[10] Agamben, Stanzas, xvii.

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