Not Not Backpatches. Not Not Elbowpatches. Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Black Metal Theory

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There’s a commonly-cited quotation that goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I can’t even recall when or where I first heard it, and it’s been variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, Laurie Anderson, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, and John Cage. I could see any of them saying it, although it would hit slightly differently in each case, shifting between a certain absurdist humor and sarcastic disdain. In any case, I imagine this quote is popular among music students facing down research papers, and who are therefore in need of an easily Instagrammable way to express their frustrations.

In a wider view, what that quote seems to ultimately be referring to is a certain “gap” that always exists between lived experience and the ability of language to ever truly express it. Because music is an art of sound and time, writing cannot *really* ever provide a holistic account of it, but of course we can write about music just as we actually can dance about architecture. The quote also reminds of one of the implicit goals of academic writing and criticism on music: to assert control over musical activities by making them subject to “official” expertise and categorization. I suspect that subtle awareness of this intention is an animating force behind the occasional disdain leveled at critics and others who write on the arts.

I begin here because this month I want to dig into Black Metal Theory, a truly esoteric niche of metal academia whose practitioners also might reject the notion that their work is really a part of “Metal Studies” at all...at least as it’s conceived by folks working in fields like sociology, cultural studies, musicology, or music theory. Through a singular set of circumstances, however, Black Metal Theory was also probably how many metalheads first became aware of the academic interest in metal.

Black Metal Theory first came to wider attention following a symposium held at a Brooklyn bar in 2009, which received a slightly bewildered but also fairly appreciative write-up in The New York Times. For many black metal fans outside academia, the first exposure to Black Metal Theory was the symposium’s viral essay “Transcendental Black Metal” by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, guitarist and singer for the band Liturgy, which inspired a significant backlash in some circles, as might be expected. Apart from the usual anti-academic mockery, the fact that Hunt-Hendrix positioned Liturgy as standard bearers of a new aesthetic that would save black metal from its own artistic atrophy was also admittedly pretty brazen. However, I also reckon that the provocation was intentional. The proceedings of that symposium were published in a 2010 volume entitled Hideous Gnosis, which was followed by several other books along with further collections of essays, poetry, and visual art. The main organizers of these conferences and publications were Batalliean scholar Edia Connole and Nicola Masciandaro, a professor of medieval literature, who together edited the collections Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory (Mimesis International, 2015) and Mors Mystica: Black Metal Theory Symposium (Schism Press, 2015). I would also add Scott Wilson’s edited volume Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology (Zero Books, 2014) to any recommended readings list, along with Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy series (Zero Books, 2011-2015) and possibly also Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race (Viking Press, 2010) as supplemental background readings. For starters, anyway.

However, Black Metal Theory does not make for light or casual reading; many of the works in this field are baroquely constructed and densely packed with references to various schools of esoteric thought and pessimistic philosophy. It perhaps relates to the broader issue of reader accessibility within academic writing in general due to the use of jargon requiring extensive background knowledge. This cracks open a bigger can of worms involving the fact that academic tenure and promotion systems are set up to reward niche research that often seems opaque to non-specialists. While nobody bats an eye at such things in the sciences, in matters of art and culture it can often feel like a tool of intentional gatekeeping and exclusiveness, or it’s held up as evidence of irrelevance and triviality. But I digress.

I have to confess that these issues arise in my mind in relation to Black Metal Theory because of my own personal experience with it. When I first encountered writings in this vein a little bit more than a decade ago, I often found them to be as frustrating as they were compelling. I could tell there were really interesting ideas in play, but they were buried in references to medieval gnosticism, speculative realist philosophy, and metaphysical concepts that I was aware of but far from fluent in, and there were often few explanations or footnotes to bridge that gap. At times it really did seem to me like the authors were purposefully erecting this barrier in their writing. Yet this kind of problem is also endemic to Metal Studies, since any interdisciplinary field is necessarily going to involve multiple discipline-specific vocabularies that might not translate easily. Black Metal Theory (and philosophical writing in general) is just a particularly acute example.

To this day some Black Metal Theory articles still leave me humming "Cottleston Pie," but I’ve developed a better sense of their intentions over the years. Black Metal Theory doesn’t really want to create literature about black metal; it wants literature as black metal, creating and inhabiting a liminal space in which theoretical writing collides with (and is contaminated by) the spirit of black metal. Black metal itself, however, manages to continually evade academic definition through a sort of quantum necro-mechanics, thanks to that ever-present gulf between experience and language. While much academic writing on metal seeks to illuminate, categorize, and contain it in the name of institutional expertise, it seems to me that much Black Metal Theory instead aims for the opposite: a re-blackening and re-occultation of metal. Obscurantism thus comes with the territory. As Masciandaro puts it in his essay “On the Mystical Love of Black Metal,” “we will speak in black metal, there, where the secret of black metal is, wherever black metal is the secret of itself.” For my money, there’s a certain comfort in this enduring inexpressible je ne sais quoi of black metal, partly because it means that there can never be a “last word” on the subject, but also because it’s a reminder of what drew us to this path in the first place.

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Ross Hagen is a musicologist at Utah Valley University and is the author of A Blaze in the Northern Sky from the 33.3 series. Fun. Core. Mosh. Trends.

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