Review: Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)

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Owing as much to the Catholic anxiety horror of Alice Sweet Alice, and God Told Me To as it does to hard-boiled police corruption exposés like Serpico, or addiction-focused social problem films like The Panic in Needle Park, the unflinching perseverance of Bad Lieutenant‘s look at the moral horror of addiction and police corruption, in conjunction with the earnestness of its grainy 16mm aesthetic doesn’t make it an impressive call-back to the New York/New Jersey films of the mid-70s; it truly is one of them.

It is exceptionally infrequent that a film is even nearly as successful, carving out a message from a world that inspires such nihilism, without the entire rest of the narrative becoming wholly undone and belittled in the process; Bad Lieutenant, rather than ending on a message of hope in the face of adversity, ends on a message of faith in the face of hope’s absence. It is as distressingly unsatisfying – and accordingly perfect – as it could be. The contemporary embodiment of the anguished resilient vortex of Beckett’s famous line, I can’t go on; I’ll go on.

“Despite Being Chained to the Festering Corpse:” Putrefaction and Preservation in Black Metal Xenochronic Temporality

(Given at the International Black Metal Theory Symposium, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana 19/4/19. Contains modified excerpt from “Bathing in the Horror That the Blood of Time Carries.”)

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Throughout his essay “The Corpse Bride: Thinking With Nigredo,” Reza Negarestani posits as the foundation for the Western philosophical tradition of reason, the titular Etruscan method of torturous execution:

A living man or woman was tied to a rotting corpse, face to face, mouth to mouth, limb to limb, with an obsessive exactitude in which each part of the body corresponded with its matching putrefying counterpart. Shackled to their rotting double, the man or woman was left to decay…Only once the superficial difference between the corpse and the living body started to rot away through the agency of worms, which bridged the two bodies, establishing a differential continuity between them, did the Etruscans stop feeding the living. Once both the living and the dead had turned black through putrefaction, the Etruscans deemed it appropriate to unshackle the bodies, by now combined together, albeit on an infinitesimal, vermicular level. (TCB, 131)

The “superficial blackening” of necrosis is what is known in alchemical – and also Jungian psychological – terms as nigredo. For the Etruscan executioners, it is the discursive medium through which the interior and exterior communicate: the surface indicating the foundation, now rendered undifferentiated through this process of mutual decomposition. “Explicit or ontologically registered decay was merely a superficial symptom of an already founded decay, decay as a pre-established universal chemistry,” (ibid), upon whose ultimate revelation depends the unshackling.

Though the original text is presumed lost, Negarestani, and Brunschwig before him, assert that Aristotle proposed the corpse bride as a fitting analogy for the soul’s relation to the self, with the soul acting as the living, and the body acting as the dead. The soul’s need for the body to perform actions in and on the world that would create or promulgate reason, and the body’s need for the soul to give reason to its actions reveal a symbiotic, cyclical implication that is at once equally perfectly reflected and very much troubled by the concept of putrefying, anti-differentiating nigredo. The “problematic collusion” of this “necrophilic intimacy” is – not only for Aristotle but the aphophatic theologians of the Middle Ages such as Plotinus – resolved, aptly enough, with further paradox: aphairesis, or subtraction.

The soul, debased by its necessary relation to the impure body to approach being qua being must remain in itself, whilst simultaneously remaining less. In so doing, the foundational, fundamental Ideal, the Divine, the One is revealed:

Both…formulations of aphairesis are grounded on one precondition, which can be summarised in terms of conservation after subtraction: despite being chained to the festering corpse or being subtracted, the soul is able to conserve some of itself and render the body intelligible. In the same vein, no matter what is taken away from the Divine, it will continue to remain as the One already there. (TCB, 138).

Negarestani, in noting the face-to-face bondage between the living/soul and the dead/body, acknowledges the Greco-Roman “mirror” motif, and the horror of identification under such circumstances, but surely we must also consider the arrangement a conscious inversion of the Greco-Roman motifs relating to bicephalous bodies fused back-to-back, such as the creatures of Aristophanes’ myth of creation, or the Roman god Janus. By rotating the two outward-looking faces that were viewing the past and future inward, the unilaterality of vitalism and linearity of time is undone: a feedback loop generates, in which distortion is the aphairetic mode of putrefaction, and volume is the usurping avatar for intelligibility.

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But, what does this – other than having a similar emphasis on the macabre – have to do with black metal?

Many essays  in Black Metal Theory have launched investigations into the “black” of black metal, beyond simply being a referent to Venom’s song and album of the same name, itself a pun on “black magic.” When discussing metal fusion genres, one typically either results in a mundane product of hyphenation (for example, death-doom) or in dialectically synthetical creation, such as the combination of doom and hardcore to create sludge. However, when black metal is one of the ingredients, we get instead “blackened death metal,” “blackened doom.” Not just a musical approach, not even just an aesthetic, black metal is a blackening metal: a process, an infection, a degradation. In this essay, I suggest the “black” of black metal is the “blackening” of nigredo, and quite specifically the nigredo attained in the context of the corpse bride. This blackening is the process by which the trueness of “True Norwegian Black Metal” or, more recently, “trve kvlt” status may be achieved: rather than this being necessarily a process of attaining a simple clarity, a disavowal of noise and chatter that would distract from a classical “true Norwegian” message, aphairetic distortion and para-intelligible volume to which we have already alluded is, in fact, the desired goal. Clearly, black metal’s understanding of and relationship with the notions of time and history is a strikingly nuanced and esoteric one.

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Rarely does a genre or subgenre seem quite so reverent to its forebears, but black metal is so much so that the universally undisputed founders of the movement – Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, etc – are nevertheless known as the “second wave,” whilst older death, speed and thrash bands like Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are afforded the “first wave” honorific. Indeed, one notable aspect of black metal’s relationship with its own past is the speed with which it establishes itself as having a “past” at all: less than one year after the release of Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, featuring already deceased vocalist Dead on the front, brandishing a candelabrum in a chiaroscuro backdrop, Darkthrone released Transilvanian Hunger, with Fenriz replicating the image, screaming and in a considerably harsher contrast, as though in tribute. One may consider a parallel in these two respective images with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Accordingly, there are two aspects to this replication worthy of comment: first, the idea that a timeframe of less than a year is anywhere near long enough to justify a tribute that wouldn’t be written off as shamelessly derivative (which Transilvanian Hunger’s cover never has been; in fact, it is one of the most iconic images of black metal to this day). We may contrast this with the 40+ years between Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and Electric Wizard’s Legalise Drugs & Murder. The other is the aforementioned distortion of the temporal feedback: even the originators of black metal can be blackened.

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In relation to itself, black metal’s corpse bride existence renders it an inverted palimpsest, whereupon the erasure – decay, distortion, blackening –  of one text reveals another. There is, not for nothing, a reflection of various postmodern counter-historical techniques at play, here. To name three: Foucault’s genealogy, Deleuze’s difference and repetition, and Derrida’s hauntology. With regard the latter, we return to Mayhem and the figure of Dead, so emblematic of the trueness of True Norwegian Black Metal status’ dependence upon destructive – crucially, self-destructive – behaviour. Indeed, as Evan Calder Williams begins discussing Mayhem’s first demo, Pure Fucking Armageddon, in the first Black Metal Theory Symposium, Hideous Gnosis, he invokes the Shakespearean phrase that catalyses Spectres of Marx: “Of course, black metal never really begins. It’s always been out of time, eternally out of joint with a world it hates, even as it cannot leave that world behind.” (HG, 129).  Similarly may we consider Dead as embodiment of this assertion. Never afforded an official studio release, Dead became the mascot of Mayhem, “the band so extreme the singer committed suicide,” long after his reign as the band’s singer, definitively ended by his suicide. His influence on the image of the band, however, may be understood to remain entirely consistent with that when he was alive, performing multiple rituals – use of corpse paint, burying and re-earthing of clothing, insufflation of carion – to render him a walking corpse, reflective of his name, that he has widely been speculated to have suffered from Cotard delusion. Accordingly, there is established within black metal a dynamic of  verticality to its temporal state, a xenochronic positioning where nothing quite has an origin, and even the dead cannot quite leave the world behind. On this last point, Negarestani speaks of the oft-neglected aspect of the corpse bride’s mirroring status:

It is indeed ghastly for the living to see itself as dead; but it is true horror for the dead to be forced to look at the supposedly living, and to see itself as the living dead, the dead animated by the spurious living. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine tell us about this infliction upon the dead of the burden of the living, this molesting of the dead with the animism of the living. (TCB, 135-6)

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Cotard delusion, the mental fixation on being already dead, or that one’s internal organs are dissolving, typically results in several other psychological anomalies: one, that the patient’s belief she will, in essence, “live” – or at least “continue” – forever; and also a common prevalence of facial misrecognition to a point of belief in all others as imposters, often resulting in dual diagnosis with Capgras’ syndrome. We must consider Negarestani’s speculations on the horror felt supposedly by the dead themselves, as they gaze into a face of the living, a reflective image they simultaneously do and do not recognise. The living dead aesthetic of black metal may also be understood as symbolic in itself of the xenochronic relation it holds to a predominantly fictional timeline in which Scandinavian folkloric mythology and theistic Satanism were supposedly unified as one consistent ideology. Of course more than simply a genre of music, the second-wave inner circle manifested this xenochronic relation through hyperstitional praxis (that is to say, materialisation of thought or belief). Specifically, this praxis was the burning of Norwegian stave churches as retaliation for their alleged usurping of the true Scandinavian ethno-spiritual way of life. Of hyperstition, Nick Land demarcates four characteristics:

They function as (1) an “element of effective culture that makes itself real,” (2) as a “fictional quality functional as a time-travelling device,” (3) as “coincidence intensifiers,” and (4) as a “call to the Old Ones”. The first three characteristics describe how hyperstions like the ‘ideology of progress’ or the religious conception of apocalypse enact their subversive influences in the cultural arena, becoming transmuted into perceived ‘truths,’ that influence the outcome of history. Finally, as Land indicates, a hyperstition signals the return of the irrational or the monstrous ‘other’ into the cultural arena. (Delphi Carstens – Hyperstition)

Certainly, by these characteristics may we understand black metal as an ultimate hyperstitional medium: content, form and exogenous context, materialising points in a semi-fictional temporality, whose recurrence is manifested through a process of continuous putrefaction. As one example, let us look at “Báthory Erzsébet” by Sunn O))). Guest singer Malefic (Scott Conner) of Xasthur and Twilight, an apparently severe claustrophobe, was locked inside a casket, loaded into a hearse, and from there recorded his vocals, beginning: “Here / decompose forever / aware and unholy / encased in marble and honey from the swarm / a thin coat of infernal whispering that bleaches from within / a darkness that defiles thought.” With regard to “Báthory Erzsébet”’s sound, Stephen Graham speaks of its disarmingly quantum state: “It’s chromatic and pitch-centred, riff-based and ambiguously discursive. The music’s complication of conventional codes of musical organisation means that it impacts in the register of confusing and unstable jouissance as opposed to that of clear discernment.” Malefic’s vocal performance also operates in kind. Employing a traditional black metal “wretched vocals” technique, Malefic would, by most accounts, sound “scary.” However, what renders the sound of “Báthory Erzsébet” so unique is the extent to which Malefic in reality sounds petrified in his delivery. Graham’s description of the ways in which the instrumentation “wobbles” and “flickers” are wholly matched by Malefic’s involuntary wavering, whilst the punctuation of gasps between roars speak entirely to the sense of flickering; the listener’s mental image of Malefic is disturbed by the flickering, irrepressible intrusions of Scott Conner’s chronic fear of enclosed spaces.

As with many extreme metal – and particularly black metal – song structures, there is no verse-chorus division in the lyrics and the unclarity of the vocals strips away any need for rhyme or avoidance of enjambment. Thus, Malefic’s delivery is an effectively unbroken account of the corporeal putrefaction and spiritual desolation of titular Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory. Within such lines as “Stolen by the wingless harpies whose memories lay waste the valley of diamonds … / a thick viscous cloud smothering hope … / the begotten mistress of eternal hunger … / worship in the torment of a million wasted lives / bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries,” in conjunction with the aforementioned opening, “Báthory Erzsébet” is a poignant reflection on Bathory’s legendary vampiric status as one who retained her beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens, ultimately succumbing to a most brutal realisation of the way of all flesh. Thus, at the heart of this song is an unmistakable tension between preservation and entropy, made manifest as imagery of claustrophobia and isolation, as reflective of Bathory’s death in solitary confinement, represented here as immurement / premature burial. One may naturally assume that, of all lyrics a claustrophobe might wish to find oneself singing, from the confines of a casket, these are absolutely not they. Thus, just as the (in this instance, both bass) guitars of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley  are drenched in feedback distortion, so too in another sense are Malefic’s vocals: every element of his performance having an amplifying and, indeed, distorting effect on every other.

Within the context of musical production and performance, “Báthory Erzsébet” perhaps stands alone as the most effective sadomasochistic genealogical exercise, whose hellish iconography of eternal entropy acts as acute representation of the perpetual disintegration to which the body is subjected by history, as described by Foucault. nietzsche considered the suffering experienced through dramatic performance as first and foremost an experience of “compassion,” that would imply sympathy. However, there most certainly is a physical, sensorial component to this performance which acts as the repetitious festivals of Deleuze’s description: “repeating an ‘unrepeatable,’ they do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorises and thereby reverses itself.” We the listener and Sunn O))) the performers – not least of all Malefic – are united and unified by the shared experience of the repetition of Bathory’s death, even or especially considering the fictional quality of this account of it which, for Land, is the xenochronic catalyst. Immobile, sharing his casket with the hyperstitional spectre of Elizabeth Bathory, Malefic creates and undergoes the black metal corpse bride first hand.

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For all of black metal’s ostensible anxieties surrounding the question of authenticity, it is perhaps one of the most successful metal movements when it comes to evolution and hybridisation. The circumstances of black metal authorship and production bear such relevance as to create new subgenres, almost solely on the basis of lyrical content (i.e the somewhat tautological “depressive suicidal black metal”), or it can bear essentially zero sonic qualities with the canon characteristics, such as the prison-era Burzum releases or the work of acousmatic collective Tele.S.Therion, and still be included within the oeuvre. My use of the term xenochrony throughout the paper has been partially dependent on a definition of my own invention: that relating to an alien time, a historical-present that implies a forward-looking ideology, albeit rooted in a prohibitively self-destructive praxis. Meanwhile, the original use of the term relates specifically to the extraction or transposition of one or more musical parts and introducing them to another movement: studio-based dialectics. This can nevertheless be directly related to Tele.S.Therion’s production, based upon Pythagorean akousmatikoi,  in which all musicians record their parts in isolation, only ever hearing the bass as a prompt. It is here where we may sense the connection to black metal, perhaps the only non-electronic genre to be so associated with entirely studio-based projects of one and two-man bands, including Burzum, Xasthur, Gnaw Their Tongues and Silencer: a collective of isolationists, extracting various ideologies, religious persuasions and musical practices and introducing them to a profound and unending process of negation. As Brian Massumi asserts, “a paradox is not contradiction; [it] abolishes contradiction.”

The journey to a position of truth is a journey dependent on a fiction, and must destroy the traveller, forever. The reverberating distortion of paradox vibrates in the tremolo picks of the Phrygian and Locrian modes, binding the future and past into a congealed, black, mass. Putrified, petrified, amorphous in rupture, black metal is rendered an intelligible body, but only in a language of an alien time.