Monday, February 14, 2011

Interview on BMT

Dominik Irtenkauf interviews Nicola Masciandaro

 a. First of all, black metal theory could be understood as some special kind of metal studies. Yet I can find some traces of philosophy in it as well.

The impulse from the beginning has been for something that goes beyond, without necessarily precluding, diagnostic or analytical discourse about black metal. No one merely listens to music, without participating in it. It is an object that infects and possesses the subject. So philosophy stands for the practice of thought, for thought as participation, as more than just studying or thinking about something. On this point black metal theory opposes the perverted secret identity between fan and philosopher in contemporary culture, namely, the situation according to which the fan is an unconscious or sleeping philosopher and the philosopher a mere fan. Black metal theory expresses a need to reopen music to the philosophy of music and philosophy to the music of philosophy in a black way. If philosophy is thought practicing the love of wisdom (philo-sophia), black metal theory is thought practicing the love of black metal.  
b. It seems to be more about speculative interpretations of a musical sub-culture than developing a coherent system of theory. Is that perception correct?

Yes. And yet there is a ‘coherence’ to black metal. There is a principle according to which we rightly insist and argue that things are and are not black metal. In this respect black metal theory territorializes the potentiality of a non-systematizable coherence, a substance without law. Or we could say that black metal is formally equivalent to Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, that its topos or place is the black spaces or unreachable interiors/exteriors that system per se cannot reach. As these spaces are different with respect to different coherent or axiomatic systems, so black metal is not something universally fixed, but a virtually mobile unreachable thing, like an unmineable mineral that weirdly relocates its inaccessibility according to the equipment on the surface.     

c. If so, can there be a specific methodical approach to black metal theory? Can it be relevant to develop such a method from the subject of research itself, i.e. black metal and its connotations?

Nothing significant is produced without method, which simply means the way of doing something. Arriving anywhere requires a specific way. And it is precisely in relation to the specificity of method, to its necessary individuation, that there is no general way. As Nietzsche says, “’Das — ist nun mein Weg, — wo ist der eure?’ so antwortete ich Denen, welche mich ‘nach dem Wege’ fragten. Den Weg nämlich — den giebt es nicht!” In other words, if black metal theory is anything significant, it must exist within many specific methodologies, the truth or utility of which is absolutely indifferent to whether or not they are followed or implemented.

d. What importance does black metal theory attach to the scene’s activists such as musicians, journalists and followers of the cvlt?

This is a strange question to answer because it seems to address ‘black metal theory’ as if it defined a specific viewpoint or set of values towards persons and vocations. Perhaps the question is analogous to the kind of questions that get posed to black metal artists regarding the importance of the ‘fans’ or the ‘scene’ to their music, questions that spark responses of total indifference and  sincere fidelity. All I can say is that black metal theory is neither for anyone nor for no one. I do not even want to say that it is for the people who practice it. At a practical material level it does not seem to be. More positively, I think black metal theory attaches importance not to social identities and roles, but to the act of penetrating once again into the essence of black metal, an act whose value might be compared to the release of kind of intoxicating atmosphere. Participants in the first two symposia included all the kinds of persons you mention, as well as people not otherwise involved with black metal.

e. Can statements by black metal musicians help to start a first interrogation with the music’s material?

Of course. All statements about black metal are always already a form of black metal theory.

f. Now let‘s take a short rest: there were books like "Lords of Chaos" which dealt with black metal in a journalistic way. There is a new book in Norwegian dealing with Scandinavian black metal’s evolution. Mostly, they tell anecdotes and are not very interested in developing theoretical lines. These publications respectively their authors indulge in psychological interpretations of seminal moments in the history of this musical style. Is that a proper way to deal with black metal?

That is one way, though it is not necessarily ‘proper’, in the sense of belonging to black metal.  I can appreciate the generic utility of intelligent factual accounts of black metal events. But I am much more interested in ‘accounts’ of black metal that are somehow also black metal events in their own right. 

g. In Hideous Gnosis, there were some philosophers mentioned in the context of understanding black metal. Is there a certain tradition in the history of ideas that could be easily linked to this kind of music?

There are many traditions that are relevant, as well as several modern thinkers with natural affinities to the genre. Too many to list here. More importantly, black metal perpetuates itself via a satanic logic that corrodes and occludes its own resources while allowing them to remain apparent. You could say that black metal practices what Benjamin called “the art of citing without quotation marks.” Rebelling against the logic or order whereby the citation produces authority, black metal weaponizes citation against its own authorizing aura. For black metal, repetition IS the original.      

h. Some contributors did also publish in the experimental journal Collapse from the UK. Is there a story behind this connection? The journal’s editors seem to follow an approach to phenomena that helps to minimize the distance to black metal music.

The intersection seems due to some overlap in tastes, and more specifically, to the obvious intimacies between noise and speculation. Reza Negarestani’s involvement with the forthcoming volume of Glossator on black metal, which was planned before the first symposium, has also been instrumental.     

i. Considering metal music’s strive for direct speech, this might effect black metal theory. How much value are you willing to attach to this aspect?

Black metal theory will develop according to its own logic and the diverse desires of the persons who practice it. I am not concerned with how it may be affected by the principle of ‘direct speech’, which is deeply ambivalent anyway. More interesting to me are the significant parallels between metal vocal styles and theoretical discourse, especially with regard to questions of immanence and the aesthetics of impenetrability. Most of the discussion around BMT has focused on one sense of the term, i.e. black metal theory as the theory of black metal. The significance of the other equally important sense, though more or less evident in the contributions, is less acknowledged: black metal theory as the black metal of theory.     

j. In the end, there is the question: why intellectualism anyway? Cannot this music better do without questioning the core of its material?

Why not? Especially if black metal theory does improve the music, i.e. the black metal in my head. I think an essential function of black metal theory to expose and explore the non-difference between thought and metal.

k. Seemingly, black metal theory appeals to a certain circle of people. Is there a long-time prospect for this movement? I find it quite stimulating in matters of creative renewal in the field of writing. Plus there are vivid connections to occultural studies as well.

What is the ‘circle’ to which black metal theory appeals? The ‘collision’ between black metal and theory certainly offers many possibilities for development and will appeal to different people for different reasons, perhaps especially because of its newness and because of black metal’s esoteric and anti-modern dimensions.
l. So far, most texts of black metal theory that I know of show strong links to the genre of essay. Let me outline this style more thoroughly in order to find out the tricks behind „how to talk about a music that refuses to be talked about“ like Eugene Thacker puts it in Mute magazine. Essay bears the attempt to try something new and hence unknown in it. Talking about a beast that refuses to be tamed might bring a certain degree of aggression into theorizing. You cannot get a grip on this topic other than using some rhetorical violence. Can this be an option for theory?

Absolutely. Nothing ventured, nothing won. As Gawain says in Chrétien de Troyes’s Knight with the Lion, “Now is not the time to dream your life away but to frequent tournaments, engage in combat, and joust vigorously, whatever it might cost you.”
m. Do you know of any ambitions for augmenting the single texts into one big melting pot of theory? Is there a need for finding a systematic approach to bm theory or is it better to stay in the flow?

No, I do not know of any such ambitions. Though it is likely that the encyclopedism of metal culture, evident in projects like Encyclopedia Metallum, A.N.U.S, Black Metal Revolution, Transcix’s Metal Archive, will eventually move in the direction of metal theory/studies. But systematic synthesis is another matter. I do not expect a Thomas Aquinas of black metal theory to arrive anytime soon.   

n. Seemingly, some writers in this field take quite a poetic stance. Can black metal theory still be understood as critical then? Or does it turn into some sort of arts that is to be perceived in a different way?

I am very much in favor of black metal theory work that does violence to the separative distinctions between poetry and philosophy, art and theory, and so forth. Agamben is correct that modernity is conditioned by a “scission of the word,” a kind of fatal gap within language that holds the spheres of knowledge and pleasure apart. This is the condition for the birth of criticism, as a distinctly modern way of knowing that “neither represents nor knows, but knows the representation.” The problem, then, is precisely one of going beyond and creatively destroying criticism, to explode from within its suspension of the infinite immanence of the present.      

o. Curiously enough, some musicians can relate to this philosophy and they have started their own research some time ago. I think of bands like Ulver and Emperor that seem to be some spearheads of an intellectual movement in black metal. Yet there is a huge scene evolving under the tag „avantgarde black metal“ in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Will they maybe co-work with you in future?

Anything is possible. I welcome the chance for such collaboration.  

p. Will black metal theory lead to novels instead of booklets, to acoustic experimentation instead of raw primitive sounds and finally to music’s overlapping by books and lectures by the musicians themselves?

Surely such work is already taking place in various forms. I suppose the question is about whether black metal theory is really a site for the real mutation or migration of black metal into other media, into forms that participate in and are not only about black metal. Right now it seems that black metal can withstand the addition of any adjective placed before it (this black metal, that black metal), where the difference is registered as one of variety within the genre. Black metal theory engages this process from the other side.  

q. Any last words and comments on things that might have been left out?

Nothing comes to mind.

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.