The current tension between astronomers and astrologers over Ophiuchus sums up 2020 pretty hard. Something this mundane will be the final death of us, I’m sure.
The confirmation that astrologers pick and choose what they want from the stars, appealing to a exotic cosmology that has been restricted so that it better fits in with the dominant form of Gregorian calendar, is all sorts of levels of irony. That astrologers are upset about this is an extra layer thrown in as a treat.
NASA’s reassurances to those people who are upset is also pretty funny. “We didn’t change any zodiac signs, we just did the math”, they say, which to my ear has a ring of passive-aggressiveness.
According to NASA, the math tells us this: there should be thirteen months in the year. We can very easily divide up the thirteenth months of the year into fifty-two weeks with every month having twenty-eight days. They don’t say this, of course, but it is interesting to point out that they’re not the first to do this math, and you don’t have to go back to the Babylonians to find the last instance.
Interestingly, there used to be such a thing as a “positivist” calendar which does have thirteen months and would be a better fit with this. Auguste Comte created it and put forward his proposal in the hope that it would be accepted as a suitable reform for the Gregorian calendar. The problem with this is that it throws out all of the hard-baked theology that remains attached to our tracking of the seasons. For instance, he even swaps out the names of the months for historical or literary figures — Aristotle, Archimedes, Descartes, Shakespeare; Moses and Saint Paul still get a look in too, of course.
The main objection to this reform came from the main Abrahamic religions, who insisted that they had to retain their holy days. The seventh day of each week wouldn’t always be a Sunday, for instance; it would change every year. It would also lead to massive reform in terms of how we measure our own lives. Birthdays would have to be recalculated and the year could no longer be nicely divided up into quarters.
It could simply be the result of our deep superstitions around the number thirteen (a similarly Christian superstition; it’s lucky in plenty of other cultures) but this, in turn, could be related to the fact that it is a prime number. It is hard to imagine a life governed by a prime but the systems we have instead are far more god-fearing than rational. Astrology, even in its currently secular guise, is no different.
I had the best time hanging out with Lucy and Sean the other week to record an episode of their Wyrd Signal podcast.
It was recorded in Lucy’s amazing flat on a swelteringly hot August Sunday but it was an appropriately Bacchanalian affair with copious amounts of wine, berries and cigarettes.
As you can see from the timestamp above, we talked for hours about the sprawling mythos of Hannibal Lecter, serial killing in general and the strange relationships we have to these things through culture and queerness.
Give it a listen and go and support Sean and Lucy’s excellent podcast over on Patreon.
He’s lost control of the nightclub. There’s been a coup.
There’s been a lot of talk online about Jeremy Deller’s new Acid House documentary, aired on the BBC last week. I finally got round to watching it after seeing David Stubbs‘ glowing praise on Twitter — high praise too from a legendary music writer whose recent Mars By 1980 is an excellent history of electronic music as a whole.
I’m left feeling giddy after watching it. It sent me on this weird trip down memory lane, thinking about all the chance cultural encounters had when I was growing up, their age and younger. If Jeremy Deller had shown up in my classroom to talk about rave culture in this way, it would have been like throwing gasoline on these teenage temperaments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those kids pop up on the forefront of something a few years down the line. It makes a strong case for this sort of arts education being introduced into mainstream curricula — although I won’t hold my breath for state education to get state-critical. That’s the sort of thing you only get — and even then, only if you’re lucky — once you get to art school.
“Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992” is as brilliant as everyone is saying it is but there’s an obvious change here in how Deller is presenting his particular brand of cultural history. I’ve been to Deller’s exhibitions and seen his other films. This isn’t like those. This isn’t just an hour of expertly curated archival material made with the art world in mind. Here, the sort of psychedelic rave documentary (no less brilliant) pioneered by the likes of Mark Leckey, is being given a much-needed deconstruction.
Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore remains the blueprint for so many films about underground British culture. It is a time capsule that nonetheless contains within it a certain timelessness, due to the way in which the “subjectivist fuzz” of a particular time and place gets dissolved in its own euphoria. It’s the sort of approach to cultural work that we can still see echoes of today in, for example, Paul Wright’s recent film Arcadia.
Here, however, Deller’s documentary is presented through a very different structure. We begin — and remain throughout — in a typical London classroom. (And the London centricity is important here.) Deller is, essentially, giving a lecture to teenagers who look to me like GCSE students — 15-16 years old — about the rise and politics of Acid House and there is a subtly about the presentation here that I found really affecting.
I can’t claim that this “typical” classroom is anything like mine was. London, in general, is so much more radically diverse than the rest of the country. I went to a school just outside of Hull where I could count the non-white students in my year group on one hand. Casual racism and the associated “banter” were commonplace. The old adage that kids always pick up on difference was writ large then. It felt like if you were into or wanted to find diverse cultural experiences, the last place you’d look would be in the people around you.
Coming of age during the retromania of mid-00s Northern indie bands, my “Northern Soul” moment was disarticulated from any local club scene — despite every kid having a shoulder bag swearing allegiance to a scene that no longer existed for us. I’ve never really enjoyed the tracks that epitomise that subculture– the standards of the scene have always represented a sort of exoticised aesthetic conversatism to me: we like this because it’s so different but we only like this very particular kind of different — but I do understand the delirious confluence of sentiments found in dancing to Motown on amphetamines down the local conservative club.
I remember seeing an advert on the TV for the 2004 compilation Superbad when I was 14 and being haunted by the earworm of WAR’s “Low Rider” for weeks, as a track that is explicitly grounded in another culture, but which also strangely made sense jaunting around country roads at the mouth of the Humber estuary as you escape the city and hit the ocean wall.
“Take a little trip, and see” is a message to carry with you anywhere — no matter what kind of trip you’re after. I asked for that compilation for Christmas that year, much to the bemusement of my parents, and it blew my prog-dominated world wide open.
That was a gateway into a whole new way of existing for me. It was a gateway into a libidinality and form of expression that was wholly other to my own and, whilst it’d be disingenuous to deny a certain sense of exoticism in discovering the history of Black music whilst living my white British life, it ignited an autodidactic obsession in tracing the lines between the local culture I knew and that which seemed so radically culturally different.
Black music quickly became associated with the rhizomaticism of online cultures for me. The first hip hop track I ever heard was A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, selected as the opening tune of a mix CD I got sent from the US after taking part in a mixtape swap organised on a forum I used to post on.
If the title of the track didn’t already capture that “take a little trip and see” mentality, the lyrics disappear down a rabbit hole of references, genres, names, etc. It’s intoxicating if you’re already a hip hop head — imagine hearing it for the first time as a 15 year old white kid from Yorkshire.
What I like about it is that it captures the very autodidactic essence of adolescence whilst doubling down on the cartography of the band’s eclectic but loyal approach to sampling and culture with a four-minute extended verse flow that starts with the jazz-hiphop lineage in the first verse:…
Back in the days when I was a teenager Before I had status and before I had a pager You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop I said, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles? Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”…
… and then ends beyond the sleeve notes with:
What you gotta do is know the Tribe is in the sphere The Abstract Poet, prominent like Shakespeare (Or Edgar Allan Poe, or Langston Hughes, or…)
I mention all this because Deller has built an entire career on making these sorts of connections between cultural moments and there is always a sense that whiteness or white Britishness is the underlying thing being probed here. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his work connecting Acid House to mining bands, having enjoyed both a good rave and once playing lead cornet in a brass band when I was the same age as these kids.
Even this existence would be probed by strange outside forces: I remember taking a lesson from my trumpet teacher in his garage out towards Howden in East Yorkshire where he had a hoard of jazz memorabilia and a collection of battered VHS tapes that were on the verge of technological redundancy. He put one on of a live performance by Rahsaan Roland Kirk which felt like watching Top of the Pops beamed in from another dimension but every time you saw him outside the comfort of his own studio it’d be playing standards at the school BBQ.
This is to say there is a strange frequency to these encounters. They’re alien and mind-blowing but happened so often its strange now to remember I once thought they were so disparate. You feel enclosed in your own immediate community at that age but things only appear that way because the State has done it damndest to compartmentalise forms of expression along economic, racial and geographic lines. Some people never escape them.
This is reflected in the documentary. It’s interesting that, beyond the music, many of the Asian students on screen seem more curious about the miners’ strike and its relationship to a music they might be more familiar with through their friends and relatives. If I’m talking about my own experiences here, it’s because I had never thought before about the extent to which these perspectives mirror each other, precisely in the sense that they gaze back at each other over an apparent line of state-sanctioned difference.
They talk about the miners’ strike in the same way I’ve heard kids talk about the Troubles in Northern Ireland: everyone knows it was significant but today no one can make sense of the arguments for or against. Deller does it for them and all in the context of the rave scene as this underground web that connects London to Glasgow to Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent to some unnamed field in Wales; how the scene spread outwards from the neighbourhoods these kids know today and into the outsideness of the Home Counties, tapping into a broader and more material sense of disenfranchisement felt nationwide.
When Deller begins to talk about this relationship to the countryside and to the historic libidinality of rural areas — again, in line with Wright’s Arcadia and Mark Fisher’s excellent essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — he discusses with one student this two-way alterity of how, today, the countryside is an alien place to inner city youth and, likewise, inner city youth are alien to rural areas. Deller’s aim, it seems, is to bridge this gap — and others — for a new generation.
Watching “Everybody in the Place”, where Deller is getting teenagers to read quotations from Karl Marx, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, list famous clubs from around the country, and letting them play with synths and samplers, regrounds these discrepancies in precisely the place they should be and indeed are explored, albeit indirectly. Teaching a classroom full of kids about rave culture feels, at first, like a radical gesture but quickly the novelty wears off and we see a group of kids beginning to understand the relevance of an underground scene to their more standardised education. It’s his way of saying, here’s how what they teach you in school connects to what they don’t.
In this sense, there is an unspoken affinity between these arguably by-gone cultures and the cultures these kids are no doubt immersed in when they go home at night. The anger and virality of drill music, so often in the news like rave was, the latest teenage moral panic on London’s streets, starts to appear like an explicitly 21st century form of stunted libidinal expression, caught in the bottleneck of inner city pressure.
This is arguably why rave culture did so well for itself. It was a culture that had a geographic outside to escape into, and Deller is not the first to claim that a reconnection with such Outsides is necessary if we’re to tap into these potentials again.
The importance of this for our sense of national and international identity is huge, and the key to this documentary’s approach, I think, is that it sidesteps the heady melting-pot euphoria of most rave documentaries. Deller, at one point, asks who in the class identifies as British and is met by complete silence. And so he goes on to challenge the unruliness of identity that has always haunted these lands — the folk traditions that might now be fatally associated with whiteness in their minds but which were just as antagonistic to the English state at large as rave and the subcultures of today.
Because of this approach, Deller succeeds in not fetishising the importance of a trans-Atlantic Blackness to cultural trends. He sidesteps the sort of wide-eyed wonder and hackneyed admiration that someone like me no doubt continues to fall into when talking about Black musics. It holds white and Black both up and says, “Look at the crazy shit all these people were doing and look how important it is to everything we love today.” Look how important Kraftwerk was to Detroit techno and look how important Detroit and its industries was to them. Look at how important Northern class politics is to 21st century inner city pressure… The difference is that the latter is generally framed negatively. All we hear about is how the white North has lost out to the racially diverse urban centres and London in particular. But London isn’t a happy place either and there’s a reciprocal relationship to be rebuilt here.
Deller’s tactic has long been to rebuild these relationships through the mapping of cultural rhizomes, and there are plenty of others we could still explore. After watching this documentary I’m left wondering: What’s the six degrees of separation between voguing and morris dancing? But the more important question is: what does the making of that kind of connection do to how we think about ourselves and how we encounter each other?
The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves.
This is the resonant heart of Deller’s movie for me and likewise various politics explored on this blog. Dellers’ incomplete history of Britain is knowingly selective but it shows how cultural praxes of disruption are available to everybody in the place. The politics of Black musics and stereotypically white mining communities share a common — notably Marxist — grounding of seizing the means of production, whether that be national infrastructure or making tunes in your bedroom, each having the potential to influence people around the country and, indeed, the world, and explicitly without the exceptionalism required for your own continual state-sanctioned existence.
These “worlds” speak to each other more than we are encouraged to recognise and it demonstrates the innate flaws of this liberal position when talking about rave and mining in the same breath in a modern day classroom can look like a radical act. In reality, all Deller is doing is showing how two events that happened in spatiotemporal proximity to one another are related. It’s the sort of thing these GCSE students would be asked to write about in a History exam. The flaw of British education is we don’t do this for ourselves unless we’re talking about how we won the war.
Deller disrupts the “old” but nonetheless still contemporaneous order of things by reconstructing (through historicization) tandem lost potentials which remain buried in the future. I hope it’s these kids that go and dig it up.
In his essay “The Light That Illuminates Itself, The Dark That Soils Itself: Blackened Notes From Schelling’s Underground”, Steven Shakespeare quotes an interview with US Black Metal band Wolves In The Throne Room who address their relationship to the explosive globalisation of the Black Metal movement and its origins in the controversies of True Norwegian Black Metal.
The band say that, as far as they are concerned, “the driving impulse of [Black Metal] is more about deep ecology than anything else”, an “eco-psychology”; the “deep woe inside black metal is about fear — that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level.” Distancing themselves from their predecessors, however, they explain:
Our music, then, is not “true” Black Metal for we have moved beyond this fantasy of nihilistic apocalypse; beyond our own misery and failure. Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveals themselves with age and experience. Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives.
What is this if not the repudiation of a prior adolescence? Wolves in the Throne Room present themselves as the elders to True Norwegian Black Metal’s youth, but are they really so distant?
Wondering whether this new position taken by the Wolves is “a betrayal of roots, or a new baptism of the earth”, Shakespeare attempts to excavate the darker side of German Idealism, specifically through the thought of F. W. J. Schelling.
Schelling’s overarching project can perhaps be summarised in the same terms as the Wolves define their break with the Black Metal canon. He would likewise consider humanity’s “deep subconscious” affinity with nature — indeed, for Schelling, what must be unearthed is something more akin to a “natural” (that is, a planetary; an eco-logical) unconscious.
Whereas his predecessor, Immanuel Kant, in his famous three Critiques, would consider the ways in which nature is, for us, noumenal — unknowable in-itself to us, as selves conditioned by the prison of our own inescapable experience — Schelling (and other German Idealists of his generation) would instead consider the ways in which we ourselves are nonetheless a part of this nature that we cannot know. As the German Idealist scholar Frederick Beiser writes: “What Kant claimed reason could not know — the absolute or unconditioned — Schelling wrote volumes about.”
Whilst the outside — the world outside ourselves as subjects — may be unknowable beyond the conditions of subjective experience, we can nonetheless think of ourselves as nature thinking itself, in the Spinozist sense of naturas naturans, rather than being anthropocentrically and traumatically separated from our surroundings.
With all this in mind, we can perhaps see this “third wave” of Black Metal — epitomised by the North American bands, of which Wolves in the Throne Room are an seminal example — as a similar sort of development in our understanding of our relationship to nature. Whereas True Norwegian Black Metal privileged (or at least paid lip service to) a horrified Kantian “truth” of existence, in violent opposition to the illusory theologies of church (and, by association, state), Wolves in the Throne Room represent a Schellingian shift to a more productive and positive relationship to the world around us.
Shakespeare, in his essay, demonstrates this through quotations from Schelling’s works Ages of the World and Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. He writes that, for Schelling, “creation ‘begins with a dissonance’.” His argument, similar to Spinoza’s, is that God and nature are inseparable and, if we are created in God-comma-nature’s image, it is in the sense that we too are beings of the natural world, despite our delusions of grandeur to the contrary. However, as Shakespeare emphasises, we are “a long way from nature worship” here: “If we are dealing with a religion here, it is more like a contamination, in which spirit goes to ground.” Our existence is not defined by its relation to its outside but, rather, the ways in which the Outside is already within us. Shakespeare continues:
For Schelling, behind God lies a primordial ground, an unconditioned absolute. From this ground, an unconscious arises. It is a will to know itself as absolute. The unconditioned is “the will that wills nothing.”
For Shakespeare, however, the central question of Black Metal becomes: “What does the absolute sound like?” And he responds by evoking the “buzzsaw guitar, the all too audible crudity of the production process” of the genre; Black Metal’s “aural friction, a scoured glass of sound.”
But something is missing here…
Shakespeare ends, more or less, on an open question: Do these staples of the Black Metal sound “enable us to hear nature differently, breaking the spell of reflection which seeks to bind everything in its proper place?”
Not for me. I’m left thinking not about Black Metal ecologies but the likes of Chris Watson, specifically his recordings of glaciers. Are these recordings of displacement not closer to the sound of of nature’s own Will? A sound more Black Metal than Black Metal itself could ever produce?
This is to forget that our all too human musicians are, in themselves, nature’s dissonance.
What seems to be missing is a story…
We should acknowledge that Shakespeare’s whistle-stop tour through Schelling’s Naturphilosophy — no doubt restricted by the presentation format for which the essay was originally intended — is inevitably truncated. He is absolutely correct in aligning the Wolves with Schelling’s positive philosophy of nature, but I only wish more could have been said on their relationship to mythology — the topic that Schelling would explore in great detail later in his life.
As previously explored and argued in this series, rather than distancing ourselves from the mythologies of adolescence, we can instead see our more recent cultural developments as the continuation of this process, previously blocked by a wayward egotism that Wolves in the Throne Room themselves nonetheless hold onto in their proclamation of occasioning a break from what has come before — just as Euronymous did, in his own way.
Towards the end of his life, Schelling would give a series of lectures on the nature of mythology. He would note how mythology, for the Greeks, was understood in “the broadest sense [as] the whole of their own particular tales, legends and stories, which in general go beyond historical time.” In Schelling’s sense, mythology is a form of understanding the world and our place within it in a way that “consists of occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things”. Mythology, then — as a “system” and “history of the gods” — is born of “a type of alienation” that is, perhaps, inherent to the history of epistemology. Schelling notes that, “according to its origin, mythology indeed loses itself in a time into which no historical tidings reach.” It is the untimely cultural product of the questions that philosophy has long asked itself: who are we and how do we know?
Wolves In The Throne Room, in asserting that they have left the adolescence of True Norwegian Black Metal behind them, and having likewise given up on its mythologies — instead opting for the safe and scientific (eco-logical) understanding of nature — attempt to turn away from the originally adolescent form of alienation that exists at the genre’s heart whether they like it or not.
However, theirs is not a rejection of alienation in its entirety, theirs is rather a favouring of alienation through rationality in contrast to the alienation of inexperience. Both nevertheless crash upon the shore of the encounter with the unknown and unknowable. In this way, rationality and inexperience function as the mouth and tail of Black Metal’s ouroboros: adolescent non-knowledge and the aged understanding of our lost wisdoms.
The problem that presents itself here for me, as a listener, is that this somewhat arrogant assuredness and understanding of lost wisdoms is something shared by the scene’s more reactionary elements.
However, if we choose to be more generous to this group, we might also acknowledgement that a “lost wisdom” can likewise be understood as a sense of a wisdom from “before” that has been lost to modernity. This is to say, it is the “wisdom” of adolescence rediscovered by way of its absence from our experience of modernity.
This is, for Schelling, the atemporal birth place of poetry — or, rather, poesy — and it is a form of thought that moves diagonally through the naive rationality of the Wolves’ self-proclaimed ascension above their predecessors.
Schelling posits an analogy:
If a series of true events was told to us in a detailed and understandable lecture, then it will occur to none of us to ask what this story means. Its meaning is simply that the narrated events are real ones. We presuppose in him who tells it to us an intention to inform us; we listen to him with the intention of being informed. For us, his story undoubtedly has a doctrinal meaning. In the question of how I am to take this — that is, what is mythology supposed to be, or what does mythology mean? — it is thence already recumbent that the questioner feels himself incapable of seeing truth, actual events, in the mythological stories as well as in the mythological representations themselves because what is historical is here inseparable from the content. But if they are not to be taken as truth, then as what? The natural antithesis of truth, however, is poesy.
Poesy is, for Schelling, antithetical to truth by its innately multiplicitous nature. Truth is singular; monolithic. Poesy is, on the contrary, dissonant.
As Shakespeare would write in his text, ruminating on the lyrics of “Rain” by Fauna:
There is a multiplication of shadows and the earth writhes. There is no rest in this nature, no Eden. […] The purity which is envisaged by the song is not that of transparency to truth, to spirit, to the face of the other. This face is empty. […] Nature punctures skin, it is an opening, a folding of shadow. Becoming animal, we look for birth beyond the human. […] Nature breaks us. Its blackness, the blackness of earth, corrodes the solidity of existence from within. […] I have become the open seam, the wound that cannot be filled, where the heart was, where the ‘I’ reigned, there is a void.
This is precisely the Schellingian swamp, rendered in gothic form, from which mythology emerges. He would discuss mythology via its explicit relation to humanity’s own multiplication. The very act of multiplication, the repetitive introduction of difference into the human socius, produces a multiplicity of stories and perspectives. However, for Schelling, it is not a people which produces a mythology but a mythology that produces a people and True Norwegian Black Metal is a scene that was most certainly produced by its own mythology.
Indeed, mythology, in this way, is integral to adolescence. It is not just the stories that we tell ourselves but the stories which come to define us as we move maniacally into the imperceptible zone of adulthood. However, the interesting case of True Norwegian Black Metal demonstrates how a desire to establish and embody a mythology may just swallow us whole.
This is the tragedy of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene. It was immortalised upon a naive belief that those young men had in controlling their own story. It was already written for them and they were destroyed in their attempts to control its flows, just as we find ourselves threatened by the arrogance of our attempts to control the world around us.
The ecological thought of Wolves in the Throne Room had already been predicted as this series’ end point by one particularly perceptive reader. In the comments section of Part One, Dominic Fox sent a link to another interview with the Wolves in which they say:
Norwegian black metal is completely unbalanced -– that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that that winter will never end, that spring will never come. It is really music that can only be made by bitter and rage-filled teenagers. It is powerful and important to have these kinds of feelings of deep misanthropy and misery while one comes of age, because our age is sick. I don’t think, for instance, that a 35-year old man could make a record as great and pure as Filosofem. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying your belief system — it is a cleansing fire that opens up new possibilities for thought and feeling. In many ways, it is a first step, not the alpha and omega.
But, again, I beg to differ. The core of Norwegian black metal, to me, seems to be a nauseous unknowing; a Kierkegaardian “sickness unto death” that Shakespeare would describe as the “constant exposure of the wounded nature of selfhood, a self established by an other power not in its grasp.” As we’ve established, this other power is undoubtedly nature and the exposure of our own naivety before it is surely an ontological adolescence.
Things to not end here, however. All is not lost for the genre of Black Metal. As Dominic would add to this brilliantly in his comment on Part One:
For [Wolves in the Throne Room], this adolescence is something to be got beyond, rather than loitered in. But loitering is the characteristic adolescent mode of abiding: infesting a space, overstaying your welcome. An adolescent is always-already an “overgrown adolescent”, someone who should already have started to know better.
Commenting more specifically on those bands discussed in Part One, Dominic continues:
Whitehouse strike me as very overgrown-adolescent in just that sense. Whereas [Death in June] strike me as creepy old men hanging around the carpark where the youths gather to drink cider and smoke, whose sunwheel denim patches are supposed to make them look cool and edgy but who are generally shunned as nonces except by a few sad cases who can’t resist the attention.
Wolves in the Throne Room are, thankfully, far closer to Whitehouse in their mastery of dissonance, but still there is an uncertainty of position that seems amiss within their earlier summaries of their ecological position. Mourning the apparent loss of our connection to Nature is a slippery slope to towards a reactionary thinking. Instead, in keeping Black Metal focussed on the future of our planet and our place within it, we might say that the horror of Black Metal today is precisely a horror at the innate adolescence of our species, which has perhaps overstayed its welcome within a global ecosystem that can no longer afford us.
The role of mythology within this — of which Black Metal is an exemplary part — is not to embrace the easy nihilism of such knowledge but to account for it so that we might productively handle the consequences which will, undoubtedly, require a species-wide ego-death and the refutation of capitalist arrogance.
Indeed, if our age is as sick as Wolves in the Throne Room declare, it is perhaps because of an absence of myth and Black Metal may hold the keys to reigniting the void — even that which is within itself. The waves of adolescence that give Black Metal such persistent buoyancy are its ruinous grace. As Georges Bataille once wrote:
The myths which, in the white and incongruous void of absence, exist innocently and shatter are no longer myth, and their duration is such as to expose their precariousness. At least in one sense the pale transparency of possibility is perfect: myths, whether they be lasting or fugitive, vanish like rivers in the sea in the absence of myth which is their lament and their truth. […]
“Night is also the sun”, and the abscence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth.
The unfolding of Dead’s mental illness, in the early days of Mayhem, tragically leading to his eventual suicide, is the central rupture within the film and is echoed throughout, frequently recalled as a moment of trauma that has never been fully dealt with. Although undiagnosed in his lifetime, it is generally believed by many today that Dead suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, “a rare mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that they are already dead, do not exist, are putrefying, or have lost their blood or internal organs.”
Named after the neurologist Jules Cotard who first observed this delusion in his patients, Cotard initially described the syndrome as “the delirium of negation” — a seemingly vague umbrella of a diagnosis that also perfectly describes the intoxication of this music scene as a whole. However, despite the Black Metal scene’s performative obsession with death and destruction, Dead’s suicide lingers in in the scene’s history, as it is presented in the Lords of Chaos film, as a most traumatic and all too real example of the extreme behaviours they proclaimed to admire but routinely avoided and glossed over; made light of and ignored by those at its centre.
Early on in the film, for instance, during the early days of Mayhem’s meteoric and near-mythic rise to fame and international notoriety, during an infamous gig the band played in Leipzig, we see Dead (played by Jack Kilmer) mutilate himself on stage. With blood from his arms cascading over the braying front row of the crowd, mouths open to receive his sacrifice, the scene is as sensationalist and cartoonish as you might expect from a music scene high on its own self-image.
However, in a post-gig scene which takes place in a local kebab shop, in which we see Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin) telling all present — with a tragic lack of self-awareness and an overinflated and performative sense of grandeur — that he’s going to take over the world, Dead, in stark contrast, gaffer tape holding together the lacerated skin of his forearms, stares blankly into space, his face stricken with a look of horrified depersonalisation — an look that will no doubt be traumatically familiar to anyone who has struggled with the abject reality of self-harm.
Whilst Euronymous thinks he’s the only person in the room, Dead is instead mentally absent, his seemingly empty shell, already dead, violently perforated. We see his expression for a few fleeting frames but it is a moment that sticks in the mind, right before it is quickly buried underneath the film’s internal psychology of affective repression.
Later, Dead’s incredibly graphic death scene only hammers home the abject disconnection between tall tales and the reality of suicidal mental illness. It is, again, incredibly melodramatic and hyperviolent, whilst at the same time being brutally realistic, even forensic, allowed to play out with a level of detail that suggests whoever wrote this script was drawing inspiration directly from the post-mortem.
Euronymous’ discovery of Dead’s body — which he infamously rearranged in order to stage a photograph which later appeared on the cover of the bootleg live album The Dawn of the Black Hearts (link note: reader discretion advised) — is presented as a central moment where the veil of his cloistered adolescent ego is ripped open.
There is a split second as Euronymous, in an obvious state of shock, descends the stairs to the attic in which Dead has killed himself, where we see the same blank and depersonalised look in his eyes that Dead had demonstrated only a few scenes earlier. There is a glint in his eye that is, throughout the rest of his short life, resolutely repressed, but this moment nonetheless lingers. In exercising a certain poetic license, the film goes on to show Euronymous revisiting this moment again and again in his mind.
There are repeated suggestions that his steely external demeanour is a performance. (And we can only hope that this was true for the real life Euronymous, antithetical as it is to his own cultivated self-image.) In one brief instance, towards the end of the film, recounting the myth of Dead’s death one more time, we are offered an alternative and unspoken version of Euronymous’s discovery of Dead’s body: a scene, a mental image, in which he breaks down in front of Dead’s corpse, panicked and horrified, appearing child-like in his abject horror, terror and grief.
This is the tragic irony that is central to the film, and perhaps to the “real” story as a whole, although it is one that is seldom discussed out in the open. Although these kids were obsessed with death and the evils of this world, they all too often failed to comprehend, process and deal with death and evil when it abjectly reared its head before them. Whilst they performatively open themselves up to such experiences, the reality of life and death is routinely repressed in the music scene’s collective unconscious. At every turn, these young men are presented with moments where they find themselves face to face with that which they have fantasised about and yet they don’t let themselves feel it — or rather, they don’t allow themselves to show that they have felt it; to show its impact on their adolescent humanity.
At no point — outside the film’s poetic license — do they don’t stop and reflect, taking a moment to live in the rupture within which they superficially ground themselves. Instead, they ignore all signs of trouble ahead. Their true “evil-ness”, then, is not performative but negligent and at every turn it is their adolescent egos which get in the way of reaching the abyss they devote themselves to. In deploying evil as a tool to rupture their surroundings, they refuse to let it act upon themselves from within. There is no self-overcoming or libidinal revolution. There is only chaos and, contrary to their own assurances, it is off the leash.
This is not to say that such an egotism is integral to adolescence. It is, rather, a by-product of adolescence’s attempts to arrest itself. In the midst of the process of becoming-adult, the temptation to performatively be-adult is ever-present, tripping up the process of becoming-adult that has begun within them. As such, it is the preemptive closure of their own adolescence which is their downfall.
This is the eternal tragedy of the classic coming-of-age story — and, indeed, there are infinite Hollywood movies which reveal the reality of adulthood to be the successful embodiment of a becoming which does not end when you can legally buy booze. I’m thinking of Stephen King’s IT here, for example, where the traumas of childhood do not simply disappear following the enclosure of adulthood and its responsibilities.
In line with this, as the narrative arch of the film progresses, Euronymous is shown to have second thoughts, haunted by the death of his friend. He comes to settle on a promised rather than an actualised maturity. At one point, in an intensive but fleeting moment of paranoia and remorse, Euronymous’s internal monologue declares: “I wanted out but couldn’t find the door.” Then, in an apparent moment of reprieve, when Euronymous’s self-doubt has reached its narrative peak, we’re presented with a romantic and sexual montage wherein Euronymous and his girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira), spent exclusively in each other’s company, as if he finally finds his exit in the form of his love for another, seeing glimpses of a life beyond that which he has so far built up for himself as the leader of Mayhem. In opening himself up to another, as he previously failed to do with Dead or Varg, Euronymous finds the seed of a maturing inner peace.
Previously, we have seen how Euronymous repeatedly denies himself this peace, instead favouring the “bad boy” scaffolding he constructs around his ego which looms large over the Black Metal scene. For instance, when Varg (played by Emory Cohen) becomes the new unofficial leader of the movement as its most transgressive individual, Euronymous responds by declaring himself to be the aged master to Varg the violent young up-start and former apprentice, claiming he gave him the push and inspiration to begin his reign of terror.
However, the reality is that Varg has reached this position within the scene because he has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to be the first to act, seeing Euronymous’s ego for the hot air that it is and instead taking their collective fight against church and state to terroristic ends as well as musical ones. Euronymous, afraid of being outshone, continues to run his mouth, occasionally taking part in some church-burnings, and spreading a rumour he intends to kill Varg, his unruly Frankenstein’s monster.
Eventually, Varg, likewise suffering from paranoid delusions and sensing his run as Norway’s church-burning infant terrible is about to come to an end at the supposedly murderous hands of Euronymous, opts to strike first, as he always has done, and travels to see Euronymous at his home, stabbing him to death in a stair well.
From here, the film ends with Euronymous as disembodied narrator presenting himself as posthumously wistful but victorious. He always said he’d change the (music) world and, from his newly omniscient narrative pedestal, it is clear to him now that he succeeded. However, things are not quite as they seem. Whilst the film ends on a point of stalled maturation, as if Euronymous found his escape from adolescence in death if not in life, we should note that much of this character arc is invented for the sake of the film’s Hollywood anti-hero ending. In paricular, what is worth noting here is that Ann-Marit, the girlfriend who offers him a symbolic way out, does not actually exist. She is an invention, little more than a plot device, aiding Euronymous’s narrative (if not actual) redemption. In the real-life story of True Norwegian Black Metal, there is no such person as she and no such promise of release and escape. It is an invented glimpse of a post-adolescence that ties an all too predictable knot in the end of a story that has been anything but.
The invention of Ann-Marit becomes an even more interesting addition to the story here. Every retelling of abject reality seems massaged with narrative additions, but such is the Black Metal way. It is a music genre born, in each instance, Norwegian or otherwise, from a reckless myth-making and so, in some ways, it is perversely fitting that the film would extend this approach, even playing with it for the viewer, seeding doubt as to what really happened, knitting together different realities, times and perspectives.
We can consider, for instance, the rumour that Euronymous made necklaces for his bandmates and major acolytes out of the remnants of Dead’s exploded skull, collected from the scene of his death, as another example of this myth-making. This rumour has long persisted somewhere between fact and fiction. In the film, it is suggested that Euronymous lied about this, confessing the lie to Varg in their final encounter, declaring that the necklaces were made from a pig skull — perhaps one of those used by the band as stage dressing during their notorious live performances — but this dialogue is very obviously invented. It is a rumour that, to my knowledge, has not been proven or disproven either way. But what does it matter? The truth becomes irrelevant in the face of the lasting affect of the tall tale itself.
In this way, the mythology of Black Metal is something which — even today — cannot be overstated. It will always remain under contention, such is the very nature of myths and legends. We see this tendency challenged in another scene in the film, in which Euronymous’s worldview is taken to task by Ann-Marit, who declares that the Satanism of Newcastle band Venom — a love of whom first connected the Mayhem boys; whose second album, 1982’s Black Metal, gave the genre its name — is nothing but a performance, a plot device in their own occulted and anti-establishment origin story, even a marketing technique.
Euronymous, at first, does not believe her and yet, in return, she cites an interview in which they confess their lie.
This de-mythologising retcon is uncomfortable, for much the same reason that a retroactive dismissal of adolescence as such demonstrates fans of True Norwegian Black Metal cutting off its nose despite its face. There is no excusing the crimes committed by these young men but we must be wary of tendency to shutdown the inchoate and adolescent under the glare of today’s particular moralism; to neutralise the influences for the sake of what they have, in one corner of the world, produced.
This is to argue for the potential reemergence of such a scene once again, a scene which might learn from the mistakes of its predecessors whilst still holding firmly onto that great adolescent challenge of coming to terms with the insufficiency and fallibility of the human subject in the midst of its own pubescent psychosexual emergence.
So, rather than invent a moral reprieve, is it still possible to take this scene at face value, leaving its mythology and its adolescence in tact, drawing lessons from its aftermath rather than burying them disingenuously in the scene’s inchoate development? To see their becoming, and the scene’s becoming as a whole, as something traumatically arrested from within and to respond to this, sensitively, with a return to an auto-mythologising tendency?
After all, refusing to contend with the truth is precisely how these boys failed each other.
 It is unlikely that such disavowals existed at the time. Venom’s subsequent distancing from their own performative Satanism seems to have come after the founding events of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene. For instance, in an interview with Dayal Patterson which opens his own oral history, Black Metal: Evolution of a Cult (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2013), Venom’s guitarist Conrad “Chronos” Lant explains:
People hear about witchcraft and Satanism and they automatically assume murders and child molesters, and it’s like, wow. It’s incredible, really, since the church has such a black mark against it with priests interfering with children and so on… [W]e were hell-bent on using [people’s own ignorance] against them, to create something that would shock people, the same as punk shocked people or [Black] Sabbath shocked people. What we do lyrically is anti-Christian, what we sing about is the opposite of what the church says. We’re not really preaching Satanism, we’re just writing fantastic rock ‘n’ roll lyrics about anti-Christianism, lyrics that would scare the ignorant deliberately.
Whilst the anti-Christian message obviously resonated with the Norwegian scene, the suggestion seems to be that they were as ignorant as those who Venom were positioning themselves against, taking on the performative Satanism of their musical heroes and embodying everything that the ignorant associated with it rather than seeing the apparent joke.
Recently, after watching Lords of Chaos (dir. Jonas Åkerlund, 2018), the recent pseudo-biographical film about the adolescent rise and murderous “fall” of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene of the 1980s and ’90s, I began to think about how black metal, in particular, as a musical genre, fits into Keenan’s reappraisal of adolescence. On the surface, it appears to be a music scene that falls somewhere between the parameters that Keenan lays out in the introduction to his book — between aesthetic glorification and formless destruction, arising from the ground of a virulent adolescence.
The film, based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book of the same name, tells the story of seminal black metal band Mayhem and the music scene that formed around them in Norway in the mid- to late 1980s, as well as the controversies which both “killed” and immortalised the scene in the 1990s.
Formed in Oslo in 1984, Mayhem were the self-described pillar of Black Metal’s so-called “second wave”. Led by Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth on guitar, with Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg on drums and Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud on bass, the band would establish a local music scene seemingly single-handedly, and largely on hype alone. Although not without their predecessors, Euronymous was prone to voicing loud-mouthed assurances that his innovations in the genre and his radical attitude towards the creative process would change the world, long before he’d officially released a single shredded note.
Despite this lack of recorded material, many believed him, and even once their early seminal records were released it was the scene’s various non-musical activities that would spread their notoriety around the world. Chief amongst these notorious moments were the suicide of Mayhem’s one-time lead singer Per Yngve Ohlin, better known as “Dead”; the church burnings carried out by Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, Mayhem’s one-time bassist and the sole member of another seminal black metal band, Burzum; the scene’s flirting with a smorgasbord of seemingly paradoxical ideological affiliations, including Communism, Satanism, Nazism and paganism; and Varg’s eventual murder of Euronymous, along with a number of other serious crimes that occurred in orbit of the group and its dedicated following.
In providing the reader with a detailed chronological account of True Norwegian Black Metal’s creative and criminal development, Lords of Chaos is considered by many to be the guide to the birth of the music scene, but it is also a book that is quite obviously flawed.
The book — more so than the film — is a strange mixture of writing styles. It is, on the one hand, an oral history written by two fans and, on the other, a sensationalist and mythologising tell-all written by two journalists. It charts the hysteria of an intensive moment in great detail but the book only occasionally gives this moment the appropriate sociocultural context it deserves, explaining only in passing how Norway was, at that time, a very Christian and conservative country.
A repeated pull back from this point means that the book fails to dig much deeper than the headlines and tall tales. It stops itself from making too profound a social commentary, as if the authors don’t want to appear too journalistic or too fanatical, fuelling the notoriety of the crimes committed or downplaying their impact in favour of a decontextualised music. As such, the prose often appears anxious about overstepping the lines they have drawn around themselves, instead meandering somewhere in the middle. All gossip, no depth.
In this sense, Lords of Chaos reads like a middle-of-the-road True Crime novel (which is also how it was initially marketed by its publisher). Whilst their intentions are good, hoping to contend with, solidify and account for this scene’s auto-mythologising tendencies, the book — perhaps inevitably — succeeds only in removing the mystery and the productive vector from its subject matter.
The Lords of Chaos movie, to its credit, retains this mythological quality and improves upon the book in a number of other ways, doing well to dramatise its subject matter and bring to life a story that is so often buried, paradoxially, under the weight of its own narrative.
It succeeds, for instance, in establishing the time and place in which its story is set and the overbearing atmosphere of moralism in 1980s Norway that weighed so heavily on the central character’s late adolescence. As such, so many key moments within the mythology of True Norwegian Black Metal — like the Mayhem boys hearing Dead’s voice for the first time in their car, on a demo tape received in the mail — take place against a backdrop of tourist-brochure family-friendly scenery and imagery, with nuclear families frequently repelled by their chaos, spurned by the wake of the boys’ incessantly antagonistic outbursts.
It’s a clumsy contrast at times but its persistence begins to solidify their actions into a very familiar shape that is internal to, but nonetheless views itself outside of, the blanket moralism of Norwegian culture at that time. In this way, much like punk before it — and UK punk, in particular, was a major influence on those Norwegian teens — the True Norwegian Black Metal scene’s cartoonish behaviour and hyper-adolescence were direct protests against the time in which they lived. However, whereas punk remains inseparable from its sociopolitical context, True Norwegian Black Metal seems to exist in a vacuum of manic adolescent hysteria within the popular imagination. In fact, just like the noise and industrial genres that preceded it, described by Keenan, True Norwegian Black Metal plumbed similar depths of a very real darkness and attempted to present itself accordingly, with a tandem sonic and visual aesthetic that hoped to look and sound more evil than anything that came before it. Whilst this aesthetic often flirted with the cosmic nihilism of Bataillean formlessness, we must acknowledge its beginnings as an attempt to produce an inverted image of the Christian moralism that otherwise defined the young men’s lives.
Here we see two distinct interests, so often conflated, pulling in two different directions — between a desire to experiment and a desire to establish new traditions. The initial ambition of those Norwegian teenagers, who sought to test the limits of their cloistered world in a truly adolescent fashion, by defining themselves by all that was supposedly antithetical to the status quo, followed a communal desire for the outside of present sociopolitical hegemonies and the all too real consequences of heading for such an exit. As such, the musical genres that preceded them became an anchor amongst the turmoil of their own desires. The overbearing moral conservatism of Norway at that time was understandably something to be rebelled against in their eyes but they also retained a deep respect for their musical predecessors, presenting themselves as not so much lords of chaos — although that is undoubtedly how they would have liked to be perceived — but rather as apprentices of chaos.
The Lords of Chaos film is useful for us in this regard, as its dramatisation highlights these tensions better than the more journalistic form of its source material. The film exacerbates and even extends the flaws of the book on which it is based, making them far easier to contend with. Because what instead becomes the focus of this story, in being shifted to another form of (explicitly non-journalistic) narrative expression, is an emphasis on the fact that these infamous musicians were just kids — and kids who were increasingly out of their depth.
To be continued…
 For what it’s worth, it’s the opinion of this blogger that Dayal Patterson’s book Black Metal: Evolution of a Cult is a infinitely more interesting and comprehensive book, which starts in Newcastle, England, with Venom and ends up in Olympia, USA, with Wolves in the Throne Room — all the Norwegian activity getting a look-in in the middle, telling all the usual stories but within their appropriate local and global contexts. There is also an argument to be made that these activities are inherently resistant to any sort of considered analysis, which explains the novel approach of “black metal theory”, a para-academic approach to the music genre which both considers and deploys its aesthetic, philosophical and political undercurrents in written form.
In the introduction to his book England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan considers the sense in which England’s “esoteric underground” — of which “the formation of Throbbing Gristle in 1975 [was] year zero”, and which was exemplified by the bands Coil, Current 93 and Nurse with Wound — by predating punk — was the first genre to take up the inherently adolescent energy of “classic” rock ‘n’ roll, following its 1960s “Golden Age”.
Keenan’s sense of adolescence is broad. For him, it is a word that should not refer solely to a disparaged naivety or immaturity. Instead, it should be seen as an integral part of human cultural experience — and an experience which does not simply “end” with an escape into your 20s and the settling of unruly pubescent hormones.
Perhaps surprisingly, Keenan’s conception of adolescence stretches as far back as 40,000 years ago. He cites R. Dale Guthrie’s 2005 book The Nature of Palaeolithic Art to describe an adolescent cultural production that transcends not just our modern sense of the “teenager” — which arguably refers to little more than a socioeconomic demographic — but even beyond our historic sense of civilisational belonging.
In his book, Guthrie, an anthropologist, puts forward the thesis that Palaeolithic adolescents were as obsessed with sex and violence as our modern-day teenage tearaways. He argues that the cave art from this era that survives around the world — depicting hunts and battles as well as the occasional disproportionate phallus — was most likely drawn by adolescent males; pubescent teens passing through the very same evolutionary hormone-fuelled phase-shift defined by a reckless exploration of the world and a preoccupation with its darker corners that we are all already familiar with. For Guthrie and Keenan, then, the suggestion seems to be that these caves served the same function as the graffitied bus shelters, underpasses and bathrooms of our contemporaneous shadow-lurking youth.
Having exploded this sense of adolescence, Keenan — taking a view that is less explicitly masculine and anthropological — goes on to compare prehistoric art to the burgeoning noise and industrial music genres of the 1970s and ‘80s, specifically the music of Whitehouse — that notorious project captained by musician William Bennett — which he describes as a xenorock that rolls beyond the limits of the genre’s eventual social acceptance following the various social panics it originally provoked in the public imagination from the 1950s onwards.
Whitehouse, formed by William Bennet in 1980, … effectively birth[ed] noise music—or ‘power electronics’ as Bennett dubbed it—as a genre while making consistent and inexplicable use of extreme imagery, naming albums after concentration camps, like 1981’s Buchenwald, dedicating albums to notorious serial killers, as on 1983’s Dedicated To Peter Kürten Sadist And Mass Slayer, and using self-consciously atrocious track titles like ‘Tit Pulp’, ‘Shitfun’ and ‘I’m Comin’ Up Your Ass.’
So far, so very adolescent, right? But we need to be very careful when we use a term like ‘adolescent’ in a disparaging way. What do we mean?
Rock ‘n’ roll is an adolescent art form. It derives most of its energy from adolescence. If we’re going to damn music for being adolescent we’re going to have to write off all of the best rock ‘n’ roll, all of the music that we love. But as an adolescent art form the kind of grotesque, violent, hyper-sexualised imagery that Whitehouse dealt in can never be far from the surface.
From here, Keenan contrasts Whitehouse to the way in which, for example, Elvis first shocked the world, infamously filmed only from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show so as not to offend or over-excite those tuning in; later, he notes how the Sex Pistols caused great offence with their caricatured Nazism and cartoonish hyperviolence on puerile songs like “Belsen Was A Gas”, but Keenan also notes that both these artists are now widely accepted cultural institutions and so “rock ‘n’ roll can also be seen as a safety valve, in a sense, a way of containing these inchoate powers, which is how Throbbing Gristle saw it, as a system of control.”
Positioning themselves in opposition to this kind of cultural production and assimilation, noise and industrial musics don’t romanticise or aestheticise their subject matter but try to traumatically reflect the darkest corners of reality as they actually exist. They don’t want to function as an affective dam for libidinal desires but as a virulent amplifier. Keenan writes:
Noise and Industrial music function as the night time to pop music’s day. Where pop music exists as a soundtrack to nine-to-five work and consumption, noise provides the cover of night that facilitates transgressive activities, liberating suppressed personas and jamming the wavelengths that consensual reality broadcasts on. Crime calls for night; noise is no longer music as entertainment.
Today, this disconnection between noise and pop — both broadly defined — persists. Noise musics, however, are still routinely derided and attacked for their aesthetic promiscuity. Pop is today broadly progressive if nonetheless somewhat innocuous. Black music’s continued dominance of the pop charts, increasingly comfortable with its own politicisation, has brought the politics of a minoritarian existence and experience into everyday life. Beyoncé’s tribute to black politics past and present at Superbowl 50 in 2016, for instance, ungrounds the suggestion that pop cannot facilitate transgression for some. However, whilst it might rupture everyday political discussion, it remains the soundtrack to work and consumption. Noise, in occupying the night, finds itself more readily associated with another kind of transgression, one which does not occur in plain sight, and which, perhaps due to pop’s own grasp of progressivism, is easily associated with a darker side of politics also.
Contrary to this, Keenan argues that the music of Whitehouse is far less (politically if not aesthetically) offensive — or should be — than the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for instance, whose song “Mladić”, from their 2012 album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, he highlights as a cinematic and even romantic track, supposedly about (or—as Whitehouse might describe it—“dedicated to”) the Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladić.
Keenan claims that the sublimity of their neoclassical, post-rock sound can be far more easily interpreted as a romanticisation of the man in question, in being somewhat neo-Wagnerian perhaps. The track throws together an often atonal mix of folkloric melodies, raucous guitars and walls of feedback — it is certainly “noisy” if not quite “noise” — but in doing so it seems to capture the spirit and energy of a war-mongering nationalism in its melodic delirium. For Keenan, this is far more problematic than the slabs of noise that constitute Whitehouse’s stylistically provocative discography. However, Keenan notes that the intention of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s aesthetic onslaught is never questioned due to their extramusical clarifications in interviews and elsewhere as being self-described “left-liberals”.
The unrelenting noise of Whitehouse stands in firm opposition to such a response. There is no attempt at aestheticising the chosen subject matter. If anything, for a project like Whitehouse, talk is cheap. Instead, Bennett’s project attempts to hold a mirror up to the worst of human society and re-present it as it actually appears to us — that is, abhorrently. We can consider the project, in stark contrast to the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as an attempt to grapple with that which is beyond words, beyond classical understandings of form and expression.
Whitehouse, in being named after the infamous moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse, can be seen as an inversion of Mary’s own raison d’etre, attacking the news cycles and mundane ideologies that do far more to normalise the worst acts we humans are capable of by confronting the listener with that which is so hard to comprehend about the human condition rather than censoring it. To transduce this into the normality of “classical” music — in the broadest sense of the term; “music” that is easily appreciable as such — is, then, for noise musicians, a dangerous game.
In this sense, the music of Whitehouse can be aligned with Georges Bataille’s concept of l’informe, or formlessness. In contrast Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s neo-Wagnerian overcoming of the folkloric, Whitehouse demonstrates an approach “that serves to bring things down in the world.” As Bataille would write, at his most cosmically pessimistic:
What [formlessness] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
Despite framing the reality of human depravity and its abject meaninglessness in these non-terms, it is bizarre to Keenan that it is instead the likes of Whitehouse and not Godspeed You! Black Emperor who must emphatically defend their artistic practice against accusations of fascistic sympathies. Because, ultimately, as Keenan writes, “there is no poetry here.” And that’s the point. There is no poetry in genocide or serial murder and so this music is offered up as a way to begin to process the darkest crevices of the human condition through a consciously paradoxical process. How to create a sound in the world’s image? It’s “true” image? How to attend to these travesties in a way that does not hide from the reproductive reality of their implications? It asks the question: to what extent are we willing—or even able—to withstand that which mirrors the worst side of ourselves in all of its abject difficulty?
The elephant in the room here, of course, is that much of the anxiety surrounding these movements in the present emerges from the fact that there are various creators of extreme musics who do attempt to glorify and embolden an “extreme” — in the sense of a violent, aggressive and propulsively right-wing — politics.
Death In June are the most notorious group of this kind, perhaps. Beginning in similar post-punk and industrial territory when they formed in the 1980s, and once self-described far-leftists, members of the group later found themselves influenced by the ideologies of National Bolshevism and Strasserism, both ideologies which implicitly inject far-left structuralist critiques with far-right sentiments. Strasserism, in particular, is best known as a call for a brand of Nazism which is birthed from proletarian revolution; a sort of faux-Marxism which conflates critiques of capitalism with the economic conspiracies of antisemitism.
These ideological turns are regularly denounced, and rightly so, but far too often the argument is to denounce the very grounds from which they emerge. As Keenan suggests, to denounce adolescence absolutely is surely misguided. What is necessary, instead, is that we critique our inevitably conditioned approaches to such topics. For instance, are we to treat adolescence as the demonstrative ground for all creative activity and existence? Of course not. Adolescence is a process, a becoming; a period of development, of chance. It is, biologically and creatively speaking, a generative vector for the production of the new. (And it is not the only one either.) To denounce it outright is as impossible as an apparent commitment to — which is to say, an ideological packaging of — its processes.
This series will consider a confluence of such generative but likewise controversial vectors, with adolescence chief among them — but also “death”, “nature” and “mythology” — which emerge as integral gears of the adolescent process. These topics, like adolescence, can appear dangerous when isolated, but they are not antithetical to positive and generative processes in and of themselves. To demonstrate this we will consider a particularly “bad” example of an “adolescent” music scene, which — whilst initially intensely generative — collapsed in on itself, caught in a spiral of murderous intent all of its own making: True Norwegian Black Metal.
To be continued…
 David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2016),
 Formed by Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni
Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson in 1975, Throbbing Gristle were
known for their prolific and subversive activities, straddling a fine line
between rock band and performance art, the main impetus of which was to always
confound their audience’s expectations, no matter what. They are best known for
their albums The Second Annual Report
(1977) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979),
and are widely recognised as the progenitors of so-called “Industrial music”,
named after their independent record label Industrial Records.
 Formed by John Balance in 1982 and later
joined by Throbbing Gristle’s Peter Christopherson, Coil would push against the
edges of post-punk and post-industrial music, dragging an already esoteric
sound further into its outer limits. They are best known for their albums Horse Rotorvator (1986) and Love’s Secret Domain (1991), with the
latter incorporating the contemporaneous sounds of Acid House with the
industrial music on which they cut their teeth.
 Formed by David Tibet in 1982, Current 93
likewise took Industrial music in new directions, exacerbating the occultism
that was of interest to late Throbbing Gristle and incorporating folk
influences into their sound.
 Nurse With Wound is a project heralded by
Stephen Stapleton and formed in 1978. They are arguably the most disturbing of
the three groups that Keenan considers in England’s
Hidden Reverse, having subsequently had a major influence on noise, drone
and demonstrating a mastery of the aural uncanny.
 It is worth noting, in light of Keenan’s
references, that the “teenager” is a very modern concept. Indeed, there is an
argument to be made that the teenager was a concept “invented” by marketing
companies in the 1940s, when young people in the throws of adolescence were
identified to be an lucrative economic demographic. See, for example, Dwight
MacDonald, “Inventing the American Teen-Ager”, The New Yorker, 29 November 1958:
 See: R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (Chicago: University of Chicago
 Sentenced to life in prison in 2017,
Mladić (also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”) was convicted of genocide, war
crimes and crimes against humanity at an international criminal tribunal which
investigated atrocities committed during the Yugoslav Wars, largely ethnic wars
of independence held throughout the 1990s which led to the breaking up of the
state of Yugoslavia into six separate nations: Slovenia, Croatia, North
Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
 Mary Whitehouse a social conservative and
reactionary who was famous throughout the UK over a number of decades for her
“moral campaigns” waged against the mainstream media and popular culture due to
what she saw as the endemic promotion of bad language, sex and violence during
the 1960s to the 1980s. She was known as an opponent of progressive politics in
all its forms during her life time, particularly regarding issues of sexual
liberation and gay rights. Although widely mocked in the media, she is said to
have greatly influenced the premiereship of Margaret Thatcher and a number of
censory laws introduced during her tenure, perhaps most notoriously
the Video Recordings Act of 1984, legislation brought in to tackle a moral
panic orchestrated by Whitehouse regarding so-called ‘video nasties’—a phrase
it is said that she coined herself. Many famous and critically acclaimed films
were cut or outright banned in the UK in cinemas or on home video due to this
legislation, including The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th and Suspiria.
Many of these films did not see an “uncut” video or DVD release until the late
1990s or early 2000s.
 Georges Bataille, “Formless” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings,
1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
I remember I was 14 when that show first aired and I quickly became obsessed with it, pouring inanely over ham-fisted symbolism with other fans online.
Over the course of the show’s original run, in constantly demanding itself to be “read”, with all its symbols and clues and red herrings, I ended up learning a lot of media vocabulary from LOST that I didn’t previously possess. I remember it was how I first learned about the concept of “deus ex machina“, for example — the title of the first season’s nineteenth episode, which I became particularly obsessed with.
No matter which way it went, I was totally wrapped up in what the show’s writers were trying to do, surfing a very thin line between shattering the fourth wall and their viewer’s suspension of disbelief along with it. I was totally taken in by it; by the narrative risk-taking; the WTF! twists and turns.
Looking back, as disappointing and frustrating as it was, the overall end of the series fell in line with this and all that they had explored over the preceding years. The writers retired the cast from the staged purgatory on which they had marooned them. It was only disappointing in that it had not been as surprising as every episode that had preceded it. But that is still a flaw, of course, even if a somewhat forgivable one (all these years later). The writers had written themselves into a hole with no way to tie up all those mysteries. To do so was not necessarily required but there must have been another way to provide closure…?
Maybe there wasn’t. The series had invested far too much time in its own mythology by that point, moving further and further outwards from its starting point. The finale could only ever feel like whiplash, a violent retraction, rendering everything prior to it meaningless, and it did so all too predictably.
On various occasions, from the first season onwards, various characters had posited the idea that maybe they’re all already dead. When it turned out they were right, there was no satisfaction in the confirmation. It was all too obvious a conclusion for a series that had tried so hard to be anything but.
So, along with the rest of the world, I asked myself that same question back in 2010: was it worth the one-time fanaticism? Like so many other examples of intensely adolescent obsession, my love of LOST later gave way to a cynicism in my own previously blind faith, but given the tropes that the series’ scripts had so explicitly played with, it feels now, in hindsight, like it was more informative for my own development than I’ve previously given it credit for. Not least because the season ran for almost the entirely of my teenage years.
I feel like, if you spend long enough as a teenager looking for meaning in culture where there isn’t any — and that’s certainly a hazard when getting lost in LOST forums (or any other kind of TV, film or music forum for that matter) — there’s a chance you end up giving yourself a crash course in Cultural Studies in the process. That’s what LOST‘s first season did for me. That fanaticism was deeply educational.
Even now, having started to rewatch this show and, admittedly, given up on it again halfway through the second season, I have to give it credit where due.
There’s a peculiar shame involved in admitting that one is a fan, perhaps because it involves being caught out in a fantasy-identification. ‘Maturity’ insists that we remember with hostile distaste, gentle embarrassment or sympathetic condescenscion when we were first swept up by something — when, in the first flushes of devotion, we tried to copy the style, the tone; when, that is, we are drawn into the impossible quest of trying to become what the Other is to us. This is the only kind of ‘love’ that has real philosophical implications, the passion capable of shaking us out of sensus communis. Smirking postmodernity images the fan as the sad geekish Trekkie, pathetically, fetishistically invested in what — all good sense knows — is embarrassing trivia. But this lofty, purportedly olympian perspective is nothing but the view of the Last Man. Which isn’t to make the fatuous relativist claim that devotees of Badiou are the same as Trekkies; it is to make the point that Graham has been tirelessly reiterating — that the critique from nowhere is nothing but trolling.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not least since Twitter trolling reached its peak the other month. But also because what is particularly interesting about being a one-time fan of LOST, blessed with the gift of hindsight, is noticing how the show wants to create fans — and not just fans but fanatics — through a strangely recursive narrative mechanism whereby the show is, in itself, a challenge to the Nietzschean Last Man, the person of complacency and comfort, of “common sense”.
That person will not survive, marooned on a desert island, snatched from “civilisation”. And certainly not on an island that is plagued by such supernatural goings-on. The island requires a fanaticism. It requires the suspension of disbelief so that the mind can adapt productively to the demands — physical and supernatural — of this new environment.
In this way, it is a show that is all about fanaticism, mania, myth and belief. It is not the only show that considers these themes, of course, but it is notable for the ways in which it encourages these themes to leak out from its edges. How funny that a show effectively about obsession would itself be such an obsession of the zeitgeist.
If there’s one thing I remember vividly about watching LOST at the time of its original broadcast it is the feeling of being quite literally addicted to its internal mythology. I couldn’t get enough of its symbolism and various themes and allusions but I had not previously considered the extent to which this was a contagion spread by the show’s characters themselves.
To clarify what I mean by this, it might be interesting to first consider The X-Files.
The X-Files is infamous — at least in this house — for its persistent tendency to leave individual episodes unresolved. All you are often left with, as a viewer, is a choice: Are you a Mulder or a Scully? Do you believe in what you’ve just seen, embracing the internal mythology of the show on its own merits? Or do you insist on their being a lasting proof to give the show any weight at all — a lasting proof that, even for the characters themselves, is routinely snatched away or denied? Do you, like Mulder, want to believe? Or do you, like Scully, crave the hard evidence that never comes? (These “roles”, of course, become deeply embedded in the other and the character’s later copulation only cements this.)
(t’s a running joke of mine that my girlfriend and I resemble Mulder and Scully in ourselves, with my deep and all too forgiving love of the show, even at its worst, and her view that the show’s ambiguous endings are far too irritating to persevere with.)
I feel like The X-Files‘ central and convoluted relationship between Catholic scientist Scully and secular conspiracy theorist Mulder was clearly echoed in the bubbling antagonism that develops over the initial seasons of LOST between the hero-doctor and struggling realist Jack Shepherd and the mystic survivalist and dangerous optimist John Locke.
(I remember reading once that the writers, who named various characters after Enlightenment philosophers and scientists — Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Bakunin, Faraday, Burke, Carlyle — said the characters had nothing in common with their namesakes and, indeed, it’s a headache to try to map one onto the other, but I’d still be interested to see someone try.)
With LOST, the affect on the viewer is largely the same as that experienced watching The X-Files, albeit split across so many different characters it becomes infinitely more schizophrenic. Jack and Locke are simply the most obvious focal point, particularly towards the end of season one where the antagonism building between them comes to a head as they squabble over preparing for the arrival of the mysterious “Others”, with Jack wanting to get ready for a fight and protect the other survivors whilst Locke wants to jump headlong into the unknown and follow his curiosity even in the face of imminent danger by climbing down the hatch that has been his obsession for half of the season.
What is most obvious about the development of their characters at this point is that Locke, having been the first to experience the power of the island, is the person most prepared to adapt his sense of reality — indeed, he craves it. Having previously been disabled from the waist down, Locke awakes after the first episode’s plane crash now able to walk, and if that’s just the beginning of his journey then perhaps it’s no wonder he’s keen to see what else is in store for him.
In stark contrast, Dr. Jack, despite going through various bewildering and disturbing experiences, is wholly resistant to adapting his worldview. Interestingly, in the first episode of season two, there are flashbacks — central to each episode which detail the backstory of each member of the ensemble cast — which follow Jack as he comes to terms with his own lack of a bedside manner. He’s too “realistic”, to the extent that he might be negatively affecting his patient’s recovery. He’s allergic to giving out hope, especially false hope, but when he decides to change his ways, having been criticised for his depressing demeanour, choosing to give hope to one patient in particular, he wrestles with his conscience, worrying he’s made a promise he can’t keep. He later corrects himself, giving the patient his honest prognosis, but the hope he gave her has already worked a miracle. This hopeless patient with a spinal injury Jack knows he can’t fix nonetheless wiggles her toes post-surgery, whilst Jack is in the process of telling her she’ll never walk again.
It’s layered on pretty thick but beyond its all too obvious significance there is a deeper story being told here, I think.
Jack is unlike everyone else marooned on the island in this respect, or at least he thinks he is. Everyone else is, to an extent, struggling with instances of self-belief, whether positively or negatively. Claire does not think she can be a mother whilst the reality of her present existence as a heavily-pregnant beached woman confronts her, on a daily basis, that she eventually will be. Michael, too, is struggling to be the father he always wanted to be but which previous circumstances kept him from embracing. Sawyer is struggling with the way he has literally become the con man he dedicated his life to finding and killing, and Charlie is struggling with his tandem addiction to heroin and his own rock star image. Self wars with self-image.
Charlie is a particularly unsubtle example of this dilemma. His backstory shows him to be a religious man who is led astray by the success of his band, Driveshaft, which he is in with his brother and in which he is bassist and chief songwriter. Concerned about his brother’s spiralling lifestyle choices and burgeoning heroin addiction, rather than walking away, as he’d insisted they do if things get too intense, Charlie likewise becomes an addict and struggles far more with his new tendency to self-medicate than his brother, who eventually breaks free of the drugs to start a family.
Once on the island, the other survivors help Charlie overcome his addiction, renewing his self-belief in his own will and self-discipline. However, when a smuggler’s plane is discovered containing dozens of statues of the Virgin Mary, all filled with heroin, Charlie’s new resolved is tested.
It is perhaps the most unsubtle visual metaphor to be found in this first season but it tells us something interesting about the series as a whole:
What all of these characters share is an addiction to their cloistered sense of themselves. They are, to an extent, addicted to their own belief systems, and what the island requires is that they let go of their epistemic baggage. It turns out — and it’s a good lesson to be learned — that this is far easier said than done.
Kathy Acker is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I have long known of her work, her reputation, but I’ve only ever read short pieces or heard about her by proxy.
If I’m honest, I’ve always associated her with a certain American intellectual tradition of writing that wanted to ride the transgression way over the Atlantic from France but in a way that felt largely performative and ineffectual…
The Semiotext(e) crowd. Enamoured by the French but too American to immerse themselves fully in that otherness — that internal otherness.
Upstairs, in the final room of the exhibition, there is a vitrine which shows off an interview with Acker in On Our Backs, a magazine for the “Adventurous Lesbian”, in which Acker recalls her first foray into trying to get her work published.
Working as a stripper, travelling from club to club with a car full of girls, she writes down all their stories, retelling each one in the first person so as to appear less like “a sociologist”. Sending them to a prose magazine editor on the recommendation of some friends, she eventually receives a response that declares she “should be in an insane asylum!”
It was this, says Acker, that began her fascination with schizophrenia and the literary power of “I”.
This interview is the last thing read in the exhibition, buried in the last room, but I already felt that fascination. Not just in reading Acker’s “I” but feeling it resonate with the dreams I’ve long had for my own.
In the first room of the exhibition, she tells the story of her life. Dates chronicle a beginning of teenage angst cut up with diary entries from 1777 recalling her imprisonment in Vincennes. A Sadeian woman indeed. Not that this biographical fragment is cited with any reference made to its source. No, because she is de Sade.
And I’m shocked. Here I am reading Kathy Acker for what feels like the first time on the walls of a gallery space but I already know her. She’s the embodiment of my own bookshelf. Every which way I look I see cuttings from Bataille, Deleuze, Iriguray, Blanchot, Burroughs, Kristeva, Quin.
But Bataille more than anyone. He reverberates out of the walls and yet is also so buried. Because everything is Acker. Pointing to the men and women that lie in her literary wake says nothing of their obliteration at the hands of her “I”.
I think about Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation:
For it is remarkable how degraded a discourse can become when it is marked by the obsessive reiteration of the abstract ego, mixing arrogance with pallid humility. The chronic whine that results — something akin to a degenerated reverberation from Dostoyevsky’s underground man — is the insistence of a humanity that has become an unbearable indignity. ‘I’ am (alone), as the tasteless exhibition of an engogenous torment, as the betrayal of communication, as a festering wound, in which the monadic knitting of the flesh loses itself in a mess of pus and scabs, etc. etc. … (You yawn of course, but I continue.)
There is a video upstairs which shows Acker along with a host of other women discussing a new trend for tattoos, branding and scarification amongst women. Women who seem, on the surface, to be “respectable” and “normal”, hiding histories of abuse and mistreatment and malignment. Perhaps they have already learned to self-harm in order to cope. And yet here, ritualised communal exercises in pain and healing demonstrate a powerful reclaiming of their narratives. It is the epitome of a Freudian expedition beyond the pleasure principle through communication with your fellow woman.
Acker herself appears strung up in the white cube, literary barbs piercing her flesh, her bookshelf ripping her apart. Jesus wept. But we are nonetheless present for the writing of her disaster.
I think this is the subconscious reason why I have avoided her for so long. Now that we have met, I feel like I have always known her. I’m left wondering what else there is to add? She embodies — fully, wholly, entirely — a spirit that has long been the engine for my own writing.
Acker’s form of schizophrenia is at once hers and all of ours. Or, at least, most specifically, every American’s. It’s what has fascinated me about American history so much over the last year. It is a mentality that feels wedded to the American penchant for culturally absorbing the world.
It is this that Acker embodies, for better and for worse. The American. And now it crashes on the shore of her utter encapsulation.
And where can you possibly go from there? Where can I go? After Kathy Acker?
Apparently, I need to ask Chris Kraus. Perhaps then I’ll reevaluate by default cynicism regarding the Semiotext(e) set.
This session was really great and I enjoyed it immensely. The discussion, once it got going, was fantastic and all too short. David Roden’s final comments (sidenote: you can read his excellent paper here) were almost painful to end on because he ended up opening up so many doors which I would have loved to have probed the other panelists on. My silence at the end was occasioned by me trying to scramble together some online reference points which just didn’t load in quick enough. I was particularly interested to hear Amelia’s thoughts on how she saw her own research on alienation fitting in between these various points made in the Q&A.
Maybe those thoughts could be posted here at another time.
During the Q&A I also was asked a question about glitches. In response I mentioned I’d written on the topic before in relation to the TV show Westworld and glossed an argument from a previous post. That post can be found here — it’s not great but I’ve been in the process of massively reworking all of my Westworld posts to become the final chapter of my book Egress which I should probably get round to finishing at some point…
Anyway, here’s a transcript of my talk below, which perhaps attempted to cram too much into a 15 minute presentation, but I had a lot of fun presenting it.
just like to start by saying thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be
here and shout out to the Italian Weird Theory contingent.
I want to talk about today is the weird ways in which AI might provide a new
ground for previously unrealised political potentialities, but in a way that
drags into the discussion some philosophical (and not-so-philosophical) references
points which I hope are surprising enough to shake up our prospective
lot of this is part of new research I’ve been working on for only a couple of
months and so this reading is fragile and but, in my experience, sharing that
sort of thing anyway can make for some good conversation.
that in mind, I want to begin this talk in true academic style by telling you all
about a book that I haven’t read. It’s a book called Dogs and it’s by the French philosopher Mark Alizart, which is currently
forthcoming in English translation via Polity Books. As its title suggests,
it’s a book about dogs but, more specifically, it’s a book about humanity’s
relationship to dogs across millennia. To quote from the summary of the book on Polity’s
Mark Alizart dispenses with the well-worn clichés concerning dogs and their masters, seeing them not as submissive pets but rather as unexpected life coaches, ready to teach us the elusive recipes for contentment and joy. Dogs have faced their fate in life with a certain detachment that is not easy to understand. Unlike other animals in a similar situation, they have not become hardened, nor have they let themselves die a little inside. On the contrary, they seem to have softened.
Whilst this might all sound very nice and a little wet behind the ears, once the book reaches its conclusion — so I’m told — it makes the quite surprising connection between dogs and artificial intelligence. Alizart argues that our relationship to dogs has not just shaped them as a species in myriad ways through, for instance, domestication; it has also fundamentally shaped us as well in ways that we may not fully appreciate.
goes on to suggest that we might need to start thinking of ourselves in a
position relative to dogs when we are eventually confronted by the reality of
an AGI. This is not a dystopian vision, however, where we are reduced to little
more than pets for our AI overlords, as Alizart holds dogs’ civilisational relationship
to humans in much higher regard. This relationship instead signals a new inter-species
companionship, a kind of techno-species friendship, which will impact both
humans and AI in equal measure and to an extent that we, at present, can’t yet
is made explicit in the book’s summary is that the nature of this relationship
should be a softening rather than a hardening of these intersubjective
Whilst I’ll need to actually read the book to fully grasp Alizart’s argument — rigorous para-academic over here — I haven’t stopped thinking about this suggestion since it was told to me a few weeks ago, particularly at a time when so many theorists have been emphasising an eco-political need to reimagine our relationships to other species; to rethink the hierarchies of our cross-species relations.
This is something I’ve written about before, particularly in relation to the hardening of these subjective boundaries. An article that will forever stay with me is Laurie Penny’s 2016 essay “Against Bargaining” in which she describes the psychological impact of Trump’s election in the US as a “mental health asteroid”. We see this sort of thing more often than we might think — in which crises of subjectivity are increasingly equated with climate disaster or extinction events. Mark Fisher most famously noted how we’ve seen this in relation to capitalism as a whole, but I think the effects of “capitalist realism” on subjectivity — which Mark would also talk about length of course — are worthy of far more consideration than the overall picture because, whilst thinking the end of capitalism remains difficult, I think we’re far more aware of the fact that we as subjects are more malleable than we often given ourselves credit for. And so when Alizart talks of a softening, I think this is what he means — the innate malleability of capitalist subjectivity.
This is a malleability that is far more visible within ecological discourses today than in political philosophy more generally — and I think the emphasis on this which we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s “geophilosophy” or, more recently, other people’s writings around “geopoetics” are deserving of far more attention in this regard — and so Alizart’s call to take a critical step back from our anthropocentrism in order to help us relate to an AGI, which we might see as representing something like a new species in the sense that it is a new and external intelligence, presents us with a shift of perspective that this kind of species-being — to borrow a turn of phrase from Donna Haraway — requires. In this way, an AGI may likewise assist us in politically thinking our ecological dilemmas, making us the “Other Species” for a change by way of it constituting, as Reza Negarestani writes in his book Intelligence and Spirit, an “outside view of ourselves [which] tells us what we are in virtue of what we are determinably not.”
book is a particularly interesting example of this kind of philosophical
discourse related to AGI because he infrequently nods to this kind of
intersubjective relation. For instance,
when writing on how to rethink the very task of a philosophy of intelligence,
he writes: “In an age when philosophy is considered to be at best an antiquated
enterprise, and at worst a residue of what is orthodoxly normative,
patriarchal, repressive, and complicit with all that is overprivileged and
fascist, what does it mean to rekindle philosophy’s insinuative temptations to
think and to act, to galvanize that activity which is at bottom impersonal and
When writing on this before, I’ve always emphasized the observation that, when we see post-capitalist and post-apocalyptic dramas in our fictions, they almost always occasion the emergence of a newly communal, collective and — yes — communist subject. The TV show The Walking Dead is a particularly interesting if bad example of this, where the zombified dead provide the central characters with this outside view of themselves, by telling them what they are in virtue of what they are not, causing a complete social breakdown of the kinds of communality we know and leading to us seeing this communality rebuilt in a variety of different ways. Those who are unable to adapt die, and so a great deal of emphasis is put on this human malleability. However, the prevalence of this kind of narrative in horror — it’s also interestingly central to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — whilst innately acknowledging the truth that such a transition will never be easy, and it may even be — by present standards — deeply immoral, it also betrays the depths of our present pessimism.
So, what I’d like to consider here, very briefly, after an all too long introduction, is a very different perspective than that recently made popular within Reza’s book — one which focuses on fictions but reimagines their valences via a trip down a slightly different history of philosophy than the one deployed by Reza. For instance, whilst Reza might argue that this outside view of ourselves has constantly been attempted by philosophy — often failing, albeit productively — I’d like to shift away from this argument and instead argue that this more accurately the very purpose of mythology. I wonder: how can an AGI help us reimagine mythology in a way that has long been desired but has never been fully actuated within our reality, and, further to that, how we might consider a newly mythical thinking to also be innately communist.
First things first, and being
all too aware of the time, I want to give you a whistle-stop and inevitably reductive
history of mythology:
of mythology in the West typically begin in Greece with the likes of Plato and
Aristotle, for whom philosophy was understood as the return of a knowledge
following the pre-historic age of pure theology. Mythology then, constituted by
fragmentary memories of a time before writing, becomes, for the Greeks, a
transitory knowledge, on which Aristotle in particular would ground his “hermeneutics”,
notably named after the mythical figure of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods.
In this sense, philosophy is born of but distinct from mythology. As central as
these tales were to the Greeks, providing their philosophers with a language
and a vocabulary more than anything, through which to comment abstractly on thought
and that which is both within and outside of themselves, philosophy was
nonetheless placed above the myth in a new hierarchy of human thinking.
Fast forward to the 18th century and this hierarchy between mythology and philosophy is disturbed. Myth begins to rise above philosophy as the imagined home of a profound and original knowledge, of which philosophy is only ever an extrapolation and a reduction. This triggered something of an existential crisis amongst the thinkers of the age. The Romantics, in particular, wanting (in some instances, colonially – that is, literally and physically) to return to a mythic space-time, in order to acquire a glimpse of this original truth, instead find themselves blinkered by the strata of reason in which they are embedded. To paraphrase an exploration of this period by Rudolph Gasche: “the language of the sciences and the new rationality (in contrast to the “old reason” of the Greeks) by which [we have] been marked, whose spell [we] cannot escape, allows the anticipated return to the mythical only in a distorted form” — perhaps, a gothic form. “Therefore,” Gasche continues, “the simple return or the turning back fails: what remains is the longing for the origins and the painful experience of the impossibility of its renewed realization.”
Here the horror of the story of Frankenstein, that myth of the modern Prometheus, might quickly come to mind. In thinking ourselves, euphemistically at least, as Gods in our apparent mastery of the sciences, we are nonetheless terrified by our own aptitude for destruction or abominable creation, contrasted to the absolute and apparently pure creativity of that which supposedly gave us life. And what is Frankenstein himself if not an artificial intelligence.
This desire to produce a new mythology was not, despite how it may sound, regressive but is rather rooted in a desire to reground poetry — and, by extension, subjectivity — within the uneasy new age of reason, and none were more successful in this regard than Schelling. Whereas Hegel would notoriously equate mythology with religion in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, echoing the long-held Platonic-Aristotelian view of myth as a lower and less rational thought, which positions philosophy as an exercise in the hardening of the boundaries of a previous subject, Schelling would, by contrast, offer up a far more generous reading with his Philosophy of Mythology, presented as a series of lectures given towards the end of his life.
Here, Schelling defines mythology as the poetic expression of that which is beyond historical time, as the expression of “occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things (not only … the historical, but also the human…)” The Greek mythology of Gods and Goddesses is just one such example of this, but it is Schelling’s implicit argument that this particular form of expression is not the only kind and we should not misjudge a system of mythology as a somehow primitive mode of thought, in its general disregard for truth. This is tendency that continues to persist in the arts today. For Schelling, it seems, this is the misstep taken by his unfortunately more famous colleague Hegel. The importance of myth to what Hegel calls Spirit — albeit reduced in Hegel’s own analysis — is that mythology is the expression of Spirit’s “poetic drive for invention.” In this sense, we can see why the Creation Myth is a primary category within different mythologies from around the world. This is to suggest that, whilst philosophy tends to concern itself with ends, mythology becomes a transcultural attempt to think beginnings — the beginnings of religions, of peoples, of places, of times, of ideas, but also — and particularly revelant to our discussion today perhaps — of revolutions and technologies. It is in this sense that Gilles Deleuze would write in his essay “Desert Islands” of the way that geography and geology, in particular, are examples of “science mak[ing] mythology more concrete, and mythology mak[ing] science more vivid.”
What is most interesting about Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology is that, in tracing its roots and tracing mythology itself back to the point of its own emergence within human culture, he finds that it is not, in fact, the product of human agency in itself. Just as we have come to appreciate the poetic in its unruliness, its resistance to reason, its multiplicitous interpretations, we find that mythology instead lurks in the shadow of Hegel’s Spirit. Reza, who has used Hegel and German Idealism at length in his book on AGI, nonetheless seems to miss something in his picking up of Spirit in a typically Hegelian mode, which Schelling himself critiqued Hegel for missing also. Reza, however, even goes further, distancing geistig even more than Hegel from any occultural connotation, and defining it as that which constitutes a “community of rational agents as a social model of mind” which is, more specifically, a social model which is defined by its function. Schelling’s mythology is, again, contrary to this – it does not intend to “assert or teach something” but rather just invent. To call upon its function is to kill it — to condition it is to kill it — and in this sense we further parallels with the political discussions that have long circled the topics of communism and, more recently, accelerationism.
importance of myth to the discussion of an emerging AGI, however, is that, in
the its uneasy outsideness, in being that which emerges from us but is beyond us,
its future origins may shift our own origins in their predominance. For
instance, to return to our canine friends, in looking at the psychedelic dogs
produced by Google DeepDream, we might see this as a nascent and inchoate
example of an externally “sensuous imagination”, to borrow a phrase from
Schelling. And yet, in its imaging of noumenal dogs, it is still the product of
a broadly anthropocentric subjectivity. If our thinking on this matter is
indeed to become more rigorously political but also radical and communist, we
need to soften ourselves further still. DeepDream, for instance, is an example
of us using computer to dream dogs. We instead need to think what it is like
for dogs to dream us.