Blurred and Bloody Borderlines: Menstruation, Motherhood and Vampire Fiction

I apologise for the relative silence of late – normal service will be resumed as soon as is possible but for now, I’ve unearthed an essay from several years ago – not a favourite by any means, but it may stimulate some discussion. Keep safe.

Throughout a night without images but buffeted by black sounds; amidst a throng of forsaken bodies, beset with no longing but to last against all odds and for nothing; on a page where I plotted out the convolutions of those who, in transference, presented me with the gift of their void – I have spelled out abjection. Passing through the memories of a thousand years, a fiction without scientific objective but attentive to religious imagination, it is within literature that I finally saw it carrying, with its horror, its full power into effect…on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object etc.) do not exist or only barely so – double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.

―  Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

Julia Kristeva holds the position throughout Powers of Horror that the abject’s horrific status is not so simply indicative of material deemed threatening for any aetiological reason; indeed, neither excrement nor food may be treated, in her esteem, as abject for its poisonous potential but rather the existential threat it may pose via its relation to difference and borders. She thus describes culinary traditions in India and Polynesia in which cooked food “must be surrounded with a series of taboos” due to its newly-established simultaneity within the realms of the natural and the cultural, coming “close to excremental abjection, which is the most striking example of the interference of the organic within the social.” Beyond what enters our body and onto what leaves, however, Kristeva remarks:

Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death. Menstrual blood, on the contrary, stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual)’ it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.

Thus, abjection relates specifically to the wilfully, psychically repressed permeability of the gestalt of human subjectivity. It is the challenge to the integrity of the Symbolic walls that separate life from death, culture from nature, male from female, human from animal, even wet from dry. It is my intention in this essay to investigate vampire fiction and lore, with particular emphasis on the Czechoslovak coming-of-age fantasy-horror Valerie a týden divů / Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970) in relation to Kristeva’s discourse of abjection, using the vampire story as a site of indeterminacy, femininity, and bodily fluids.

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Orgasm Junkies From Outer Space!: The Queer Punk Tragedy of Liquid Sky

(given at the Punk Scholars’ Network “Punk and the Sacred” conference at Mansions of the Future, by Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK, 28th November 2019)

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Liquid Sky ­­covers an about 24 hour period in early 80s Manhattan, largely from the perspective of abused New Waver, Margaret (played by Anne Carlisle), as she traverses the exploitative and cocaine and heroin-addled hipster scene, including the many clients of her drug dealer girlfriend Adrian, not least of all her sociopathic rival, Jimmy (also played by Carlisle). A small UFO (we are told, the size of a dinner plate) lands on Margaret and Adrian’s penthouse apartment – controlled by incorporeal aliens with an even more insatiable lust for opiates than human beings – drawn initially to Adrian’s cache of heroin, they begin instead killing and extracting the endorphins released at the point of orgasm by the brains of the men and women who rape and seduce her – something Margaret begins to turn to her advantage.

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Punk as an identity, as an aesthetic, and as a position of precarious multivalent temporality are all central to an understanding of Liquid Sky. Precarious perhaps most of all for its walking-corpse status, having been declared “dead” by Crass four years prior to its release, “punk” as a term is in fact only invoked once in the film, when astrophysicist Professor Hoffman and drama professor Owen discuss the aliens’ penchant for opioids leading them to follow punks, whilst Owen retorts that “these punks don’t need any help from the outside to kill themselves.” Leaving to one side for the moment the moribund status of any individual alternative scenester’s propensity for violence and hard drugs, punk’s development as a rhetorical device is at least as crucial, here. As a suffix, indicating speculative conceptualisations of aesthetic, technological and affective syntheses of temporal folds – most notably cyberpunk and steampunk – “punk” has increasingly become a spectral signifier for hauntological navigation of non-present temporal planes. From a more traditional Derridean perspective, these would be the no longer-s and the not yet-s and, relating more to Mark Fisher’s development on the concept of hauntology, there exists a bleak collation of the two, resultant in the dark cloud of the lost future. Continue reading

“I Have Found Another Form of Prayer”: Tensions and Resolutions Between Univocity and Apophasis in “First Reformed”

 

(Given at 42nd Annual Implicit Religion conference “Religion and the Encounter” at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK 19/05/19)

 

The purpose of this paper is not necessarily to ascribe any individual theological position to any of First Reformed’s protagonists, nor indeed to speculate on Paul Schrader’s own convictions in writing and making the film. Perhaps the subtitle would be better phrased, “tensions and resolutions between univocity and apophasis in watching First Reformed.” Either way, however, I wish to present a list of reflections upon two philosophies, associated with religion, that routinely have struck me each time I watch what I consider to be one of the greatest films of 2018 and, indeed, recent years.

First Reformed follows Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of the woefully unattended First Reformed church in the fictional Upstate New York town of Snowbridge, once a crucial stop on the underground railroad, now a decorative subsidiary of the exceedingly affluent Abundant Life megachurch, pejoratively dubbed “the souvenir shop.” Toller is approached by the heavily pregnant congregate Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asking him to counsel her husband, eco-activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose despondency over Planet Earth’s damoclean status has him compelling Mary to have an abortion. Although Toller comes the next day to comfort Michael, they engage in something more akin to a Socratic dialogue, in which Toller feels spiritually invigorated for the first time in recent memory, alluding to the adage that wisdom – if not life itself – is defined by the ability to hold the oppositional concepts of hope and despair in one’s mind and heart simultaneously, insisting that “a life without despair is a life without hope.” He reveals that his placement as the pastor of First Reformed was something of an act of charity bestowed upon him by Abundant Life, after encouraging his son to enlist in the Iraq War resulted in the rapid end of his son’s life, his marriage, and his role as a military chaplain. Accordingly, it seems his entire spiritual life is defined by despair, which he himself must interpret as holding hope implicitly, even if never explicitly. Later, after Michael presumably realises Mary and Toller have discovered he is in possession of a suicide vest, he arranges another meeting with Toller, at which point he is discovered, dead. Toller, realising Abundant Life has a close relationship with one of the biggest local polluters against whom Michael fought, inherits Michael’s impassioned cause, and his suicide vest.

Toller’s primary spiritual inspiration, as evidenced in conversation and visible books by his bedside, is the image of modern mystic Thomas Merton, one who observed that, for many, “Christian social action is not Christian in itself, but only because it is a kind of escalator to unworldliness and devotion. This is because we apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality.” Stephen P. Millies continues this thought: “By blurring the distinction between the worldly and unworldly, and in joining action essentially to contemplation, Merton urges us to recognise the possibility of sanctity within the temporal and profane.” (Contemplative Citizenship). Here is established a conference of the spiritual to the material in such a way that we begin to see met the founding premise of the univocity of being, starting with St John Duns Scotus’ initial suggestion that the transcendentality of God is not as such that the respective finite / infinite distinction between humankind and God is enough to discount a shared concept of being between the two. For Spinoza, this concept of univocity speaks to a substantial oneness, which may be termed “nature,” or indeed “God,” whilst for Deleuze, the univocal being is the process of being, defined as Difference.

Aside from Merton’s A Life in Letters, also on Toller’s bedside is, unremarkably, a copy of The Bible, a copy of Heretics by G.K Chesterton, which one may interpret as a reasonable companion to Merton, encouraging direct action, but also the anonymously written The Cloud of Unknowing: one of the most iconic examples of apophatic mystical theology in the Christian tradition.

It is not through any New Atheistic cynicism that – during his debate with Toller – Michael, described by Mary as being effectively irreligious, asks Ernst “will God forgive us?” Rather, his position appears directed by Spinozist ethics and, accordingly, his experience of the death of the planet is his experience of the death of God, at such an intensity that the Earth’s vulnerability and rapid decline implies a longer and, for a priest, more troubling question: “will God be able to forgive us?” As Zachary Holbrook notes:

Though Michael clearly respects Toller’s history and integrity, he gives no indication of sharing the pastor’s faith. But his fervor for his cause is virtually religious, and the implicit materialist theology of the environmental movement is the greatest non-point source of his spiritual pollution. The detailed predictions of coming doom resemble nothing so much as a fundamentalist tribulation timeline. With no vision of a life after death, this worldview denying even a symbolic “eternal life” of offspring to inherit one’s legacy, how can we hope beyond the urgency of the moment? (Toxic Environments..)

I must, however, suggest that Michael’s position on “life after death” is more complex than having, as Holbrook describes “no vision” of one. Although his argument is drowned out by Toller’s overhead narration, we can interpret Michael as truthful when he replies affirmatively that he does believe in “a next life;” he nevertheless understands it not in terms of Heaven, but in terms of a transformed Earth. The looming imposition of environmental crisis establishes a potential new timeline, creating a new concept of afterlife: a state of radically altered relation between modes and substance. An existence, definitively divorced from potentially all prerequisites for that existence.

For Toller, the act of writing – not simply the words themselves, but the inflections, penmanship and deletions, are the first “form of prayer” indicated in First Reformed. His plan to destroy the diary after a year solidifies the immanent, material manifestation of communion and, in so doing, confers to it a physical vulnerability. A to-be-destroyed-ness. This process of making one’s mark upon a text, before finally burning it, is – as well as Toller’s first “form of prayer” – a clear parable for humankind’s relationship with the planet Earth itself. Indeed, we can see this reflected – for better or worse – most directly in Aronofsky’s mother! in which Bardem’s deistic patriarch is an author, whose creation always ultimately meets a conflagratory demise. Here, the silent image of God rests within the implied avatar, the constructed recipient “Dear Diary,” absent and yet made present through the act of writing: a book is made into a diary, and the diary acts as reader, confessor, God defined by its lack of response. A little later, Toller remarks how “the desire to pray is a type of prayer.” Whilst, certainly, the act of trying to pray is routinely described thus, particularly in twelve-step programs (membership of which Toller would certainly be a candidate), which find themselves with the task of encouraging spiritual awakening in the previously atheistic and hopeless, Toller’s desire to pray can be understood primarily in psychoanalytical terms, in which desire is defined as lack. Accordingly, the state of spiritual muteness, even absence, is one shared both by Toller and his conception of God.

Toller’s appeal to Michael for the birth of his unborn child is to describe it as “something alive in Mary; as alive as a tree, surely.” We may understand the image of the child, the tree, the planet, the diary, the First Reformed church, God itself as sharing the position of that which should, in common discourse, vastly outlive the protagonists, if not exist forever, and yet are being immediately imperiled. There is theological precedent for a certain univocity of entropy, of course: Philipp Mainländer’s Philosophy of Redemption. Mainländer’s premise is that humanity, if not all existence, is or shall be defined through a “Will-to-die,” transferred to us by a suicidal God, whose self-annihilation may be interpreted as the Big Bang itself, as Thomas Ligotti’s remarks:

In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that he could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out. (Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p.36)

Here, all the world is defined through the action of a deistic substance; however, rather than a classically Spinozist substance defined through a vitalistic ontology, the Gertrude Stein-esque mise-en-abyme of I Am That I Am, we approach instead I Am Not That I Am Not, or perhaps I Am Undone That I Am Undone. The process toward nonexistence is the shared differential status of substance: a univocity of nothing. Nothing as a verb.

I Am Not That I Am Not is a reasonable approximate description of God’s existence within the apophatic mystical tradition that perceives Its transcendence as one that can only be philosophically approached through a process of negation, discounting It so much from conventional mortal perception, that It may only be described in terms of darkness, emptiness and nothingness. Whilst there are many celebrated texts in this tradition, I shall focus here on St John of the Cross’ The Dark Night series, in which he asks and answers the to-be-expected question: “why, if it is a divine light…does one call it a ‘dark night’?” The response to which is twofold: “First, because of the height of divine wisdom, which exceeds the capacity of the soul. Second, because of the soul’s baseness and impurity; and on this account the wisdom is painful, afflictive, and also dark for the soul.” (In the Dust of This Planet, 136). Accordingly, there are two types of darkness experienced simultaneously: the first is one on account of the light, the understanding of God to be too great for human conception, leaving only negative space. The second is the darkness of human existence, rendered all the baser in comparison, via its proximity to God’s light, even if that light is rendered dark in its unintelligibility.

Returning to Michael’s question: “will God forgive us?” As Toller himself does, multiple times during the film, repeating the question in person to his superiors, and writing it on the billboard outside the church, presumably indicating the theme of what may be his final sermon. His answer to Michael initially is a predictable “who can know the mind of God?” However, we should consider that Toller, in being so shocked by Michael’s suicide, cannot be said to know the mind of Man, either. This is not to denigrate Toller’s perception; rather it is to note that humankind may share with God certain degrees of imperceptibility. Here is where we may perceive the first focal point at which questions of univocity and apophasis meet: within the frame of postmodern philosophical thought, in which the concept of human nature is distinctly compromised, the darkness on of God’s divine intangibility may also in fact bleed through into the darkness of Man’s baseness. Accordingly, this encounter with death – perhaps crucially, reminiscent of Mainländer’s hypothesis – is the first significantly spiritual moment of First Reformed. Encountering Michael’s body is to encounter physical manifestation of the univocal unknowability of God/Man – an encounter that induces Toller later to remark to Mary his belief that Michael “was standing on holy ground when he died.” Moses and the burning bush are connected. The suicide vest becomes the religious fetish, not as such that it may manifest conviction / belief as it does for the traditionally conceived suicide bomber, but rather as the manifestation of nothing as an un/doing – the obliteration of the container of the base darkness, and its elevation to a higher darkness. Annihilation becomes the religious act, the spiritual encounter. As Toller straps on the vest, he remarks “I have found another form of prayer.”

“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.

 

 

The (Queer) Science: Nietzsche, the Theatre of Sadomasochism, and Dionysian Eternal Recurrence

(Given at the second Queer Modernism(s) conference: “Intersectional Identities,” University of Oxford, 12th April 2018)

 

 

The plural – Queer Modernism(s) – has forever struck me as indicative of the paradoxicality of today’s exercise. The generally considered postmodernist phenomenon of queer theory’s inquiry into the modernist realm, despite documentation of queer experience, however thickly veiled, stretching far into the shades of antiquity. Similarly may we consider the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose idealised form of modernism appears so rooted in classical paganism, but whose image and reputation as a philosopher only truly flourished in its reification at the hands of poststructuralist philosophers, most crucially in this essay Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Clearly, then, a discussion of Nietzschean thought within the context of a queer modernist conference is dependent on various strands of nontraditional temporal inquiry, the most prevalent of which I shall call a Deleuzo-Nietzschean philosophy of time, originating in Nietzsche’s introduction to his concept of eternal recurrence in The Gay Science:

What if some day or night a demon were to…say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more”…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”… How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

In Deleuze’s expansion of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, return of the same becomes – at first seemingly paradoxically – the return of difference. This self-similar recurrence is not the same as merely an endless loop as the demon proposes in The Gay Science; “it is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutes being…It is not some one thing which returns but rather returning itself is the one thing which is affirmed of diversity or multiplicity.” Michael Hardt: “what Deleuze is working to develop…is an autonomous conception of difference and its constant proliferation in a creative process of becoming.” This is affirmed by Deleuze’s focus on what he (and he argues Nietzsche too) sees as the self-evidently non-identical nature of the return as being cosmologically inherent due to the absence of an already-attained position of equilibrium. For, if we accept eternal recurrence as cosmologically sound, we presuppose infinite pasts and therefore infinite variations already come to pass. Thus, were a terminal equilibrium state to be attained, it would have already have been reached: “the present moment, as the passing moment, proves that it is not attained and therefore that an equilibrium of forces is not possible.” This absence of equilibrium – and thus one would argue aufheben – is understood by postmodern disciples of Nietzsche as evidence of an ultimately anti-Hegelian position, to which we shall return.

Identity formation is undoubtedly, from a Deleuzeo-Nietzschean perspective, a repetitive process of development, from a state of difference. Indeed, Deleuze clearly asserts “repetition is…the only identity.” The process of absorbing myriad heterogenous values and drives on a psycho-physiological level is called by Nietzsche, “incorporation,” or “embodiment,” which on its basic process of enactment, repetition and performance, bears a strikingly prefigurative similarity to Judith Butler’s account of performativity in relation to gender. Accordingly, Butler understands Nietzschean perspective on identity as wholly compatible with queer theory:

The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.

Deleuze asserts that “in every respect, repetition is a transgression.” As part of a Deleuzian lexicon, repetition relates specifically to a re-actualisation or re-enactment of a unique event, unlike the cyclical and substitutive nature of generality. Repetition, rather, deals in an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls.” Elaine Gan: “With every repetition, differentiation returns not as the same, but as an excess that can intensify, allowing possibilities for new encounters and coordinations. Every repetition, through excess, introduces a possibility for differences to cohere or take place, vary, and then cohere again.” In the vein of the aforementioned Gender Trouble, gender and sexuality may be understood as becomings of repetition, routinely subjected to laws of generality. In just such a way, heightened consciousness in repetition becomes the mode through which power relations inscribed on and in the body, may achieve effective resistance through self-creation.

Affirmation of the self as repetition in the face of institutions and dispositifs of generality is described by Nietzsche, too, not as an act of transcendence but one of immanence, in which an event of realisation/actualisation is dependent on the same for all things and time conventionally perceived as “outside” the self, too: “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation, all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” This assertion appears to be a development on the hypothesis of recurrence by Nietzsche himself, leaning toward an eternalist concept of time, in which eternity is invoked in such a sense that distinctions between past, present and future appear compromised, if not redundant. For, if all eternity were needed to produce one event, the future’s productive capability seems just as ontologically implicated in the present moment as the past.  Queer eternalist praxis of temporal folding/distortion thus appears contingent on a destabilisation of conventional cause-effect linearity – such destabilisation is understood by Elizabeth Freeman as a founding principle of the sadomasochistic encounter, thereby revealing corporeal ontology as the locus of recurrent power relations:

Various techniques of visual distanciation, which in contemporary S/M culture might also include the blindfold, the strobe light, or hallucinogenic drugs, produce a temporal noncoincidence between action and result that, in turn, makes possible the awareness of the body of object…Thus in sadomasochism the historical asynchrony achieved by sexually allegorizing a lost form of imperial power…meets the temporal asynchrony achieved through prying apart impulse and action…Sadean sex, in its very insistence on reanimating historically specific social roles, in the historically specific elements of its theatrical language, and in using the body as an instrument to rearrange time, becomes a kind of écriture historique. S/M becomes a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history itself may be called into question, but, crucially, the past does not thereby cease to exist.

Sadomasochistic re-/enactments of (above all else) corporal punishment and confinement as utilised by dispositifs of the State in penal, educational, ecclesiastical, medical, confessional or inquisitorial scenarios reveal the opportunities for abstracted repetitive pleasure within a cyclical recurrence of kyriarchal generality: “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response…the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into a fragment of times that may not be one’s ‘own,’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent.” 

Foucault’s stance on the eternal freedom of man on the basis of power relations’ potential for reversal is all the more intensified with regard to the “always fluid” nature of power relations as expressed in the sadomasochistic roleplay scene. By contrast, Foucault acknowledges the relative severity with which “mobility in power relations is limited” in the sphere of social power, so that he would not suggest the scene “is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.” That it is not a reproduction of power structures speaks to its non-generality; it is rather a repetition and an adaptation – both in the dramatic and biological senses of the term – re-enacting an encounter between the subject and the State within a recontextualised frame of contemporaneity and eroticism, which thus seemingly translates the power itself from one of suppression to one of creation.

For Nietzsche, one of the main media of autopoiesis and affirmation is, of course, dance. In Horst Hutter’s analysis, “dance and other ecstatic [Dionysian] practices” – the “confrontation of passional chaos” – paradoxically permit the subject to avoid catastrophic return of the Dionysian repressed. Dionysian praxis and aesthetic is, for Susan Jones, undeniably expressed in the modernist ballet era of the first few decades of the twentieth century:

In certain forms of dance in this period, the primitive element and the search for an “original unity” were compatible with Nietzsche’s outline of the [Dyonisian] aesthetic. Indeed, Loïe Fuller’s subsumption of the body, her disappearance within a whirling spiral of material, engenders in part a “dionysian” frenzy, and Mallarmé’s sense of her dance as illustrating both choreographic and poetic practices resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas of embodiment. The emphasis on the “primitive” is present in almost all forms of innovative choreography in the period: [e.g] the animal force of Nijinsky, [Fokine’s interest in the ritual, the expressionism of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance]…arguably illustrates Nietzsche’s references to an “embodied” expression of the sublime [as invoked by his “Dyonisan forces”], a striving for the “noumenal” realm that Kant indicated was unreachable.

 

This sublime ritualistic subsummation of the incorporated subject marks a significant shift in the medium of corporeal expression of discourse, not least of all on account of its invocation of the noumenal – felt at the level of the body in the context of sadomasochism as jouissance or limit-experience. For Foucault, “the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself… was important to…[his] reading of Nietzsche…of seeing that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its destruction.” The question of limit-experience with regards Nietzsche influenced Foucault’s own genealogy and epistemology: a historical investigation of knowledge which, freed from phenomenological assumption, may be understood to frame power as holding sensational, yet still ultimately noumenal qualities. 

In Jones’ musical analysis, “Nietzsche shifts music from the realm of the beautiful towards a modernist sublime…[showing] the tendency of contemporary music to move away from harmony through chromaticism (where notes in a melodic progression are raised or lowered by accidentals, without changing the key of the passage), towards dissonance…opening up the possibility of an aesthetics premised on jarring contrasts of style and content.” We may expand the process of chromatic harmony into a model representative of the reproductive futurism denounced by Lee Edelman. Aggressively linear in its temporality, political futurity establishes a conservative affirmation of structures maintained with the capital-C Child in mind, who “remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Real-life progeny are the accidentals, whose dischord is repressed through generality’s chromo-chrono-normative drive toward harmonic resolution which, paradoxically (or at least, duplicitously) re-authenticates perpetual continuation through a system of equivalent exchange, despite apparent progression. One of the best socio-political examples of this is described by Gayle Rubin, as “in 1976, Los Angeles police used an obscure nineteenth-century anti-slavery statue to raid a ‘slave auction’ held in a gay bathhouse.” Here we see generality and repetition in conflict: the sadomasochistic-theatrical reproduction of the slave auction conjuring for disruption and parody sensuous echoes of the force of the old law effectively enough as to be considered a transgression and provocation of the new law to replicate old violence, via ostensibly new means and measures. An unintentionally astute performance of the genealogy of morals.

For the queer semi-Deleuzian post-anarchist, discourse on the nature of the Apollonian and the Dionysian “dualities” in “opposition” bears an unsavoury resemblance to an overly-arboreal dialectical prescriptivism. Nevertheless, that Nietzsche ultimately advocated for a “resolution” or “reconciliation” of these forces, rather than a “synthesis” is crucial to our understanding of Nietzsche’s affirmationist positioning, for there is, as Rogério de Almeida notes, “a certain hesitation or refusal on [his] part to characterise either one of these two drives in an exclusive way, or to oppose them too simply.” Thus, the re-emergence of the Apollonian in modern ballet, catalysed most of all by George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (whose multiple developments and revisions between 1928 and 1979, including Balanchine’s migration to the USA illustrate for Jones “the way in which a dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian aesthetics was produced during transatlantic exchanges of modernism”). Though it remains for Nietzsche “tragic art, [it is] the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus imparts the most profound meaning to appearance, and that appearance can nevertheless be denied with sensual pleasure. This is directed, like the tragic vision of the world, against the [nihilist] doctrine of resignation.”

Within this philosophy of recurrently combative and reconcilatory, self- and mutually devouring, (in a Foucauldian sense, sadomasochistic) states of fluctuating ontography, tectonics of sensuous Dionysian wisdom and the “beautiful illusion” of Apollonian visibility, that admits tragedy but refuses resignation, I want to reflect briefly on the drag balls of Paris is Burning. Competitive drag performance, with its emphasis on maquillage, accoutrement, poise, performance, and attitude – dependence on both the Apollonian plastic and Dionysian non-plastic arts – with the aim of establishing qualitative degrees of “realness.” A realness whose only established requirement is that same realness’ contention within cis-heterosexist hegemonic discourse, outside the venue of the ball. Accordingly, the performers are judged not by how they self-identify, but by their judged verisimilitude, which alerts we the spectators to the assemblage that constitutes the queer body, in and around which the components of identity, embodiment, expression and legibility are unstable, at times  as we would desire; at times the opposite, with catastrophic implications. In particular male at-birth-assignation establishes the entrypoint to accolades of “realness” with regard femininity, undone in other contexts by the self-same body’s perceived ontology, but whose legibility as something other than traditionally-perceived-as-male invites both admiring and violent response, including and often from the same sources. For all the dispassionate control we try and exert over it, we still do not yet know fully what a body can do, or what it can invoke. Nietzsche: “The Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is – the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian visibility.”

Accordingly, though queer subjectivity may still be ultimately subsumed within a sublime tragedy, it can discover affirmation in its negation, engaging with an aesthetics that need not look ever forward for progression, but instead invoke the asynchrony of time, as experienced through queer bodies. Where praxis is to be discovered, it shall be discovered within the paradox.