DI: You started with black metal theory after you had first gone through much theory. When did you come across the first black metal record and do you still remember its impact on you?
EC: I grew up listening to punk, but black metal was always there in the background, forming part of the soundscape. Its foregrounding for me coincided with my discovery of black metal theory – that was in November 2011, when the third black metal theory symposium, P.E.S.T., was held in Dublin. I was fortunate enough to be co-hosting a dinner with Scott Wilson for some of the participants at my house. As it happened, I had met Scott rather obliquely at the second black metal theory symposium, Melancology, over in London, and we formed a conceptual-culinary partnership, MOUTH, following that. Anyway, at this time we were listening to a lot of Cascadian black metal while we cooked. I was due to give a lecture on black metal theory a day or so following that, and the principle reading material for it was a collection of essays that emerged out of the first symposium, Hideous Gnosis (2010).
L-R: Symposium posters for Hideous Gnosis (NY, 2009), Melancology (LDN, 2011), P.E.S.T (DBN, 2011).
All this goes to say, black metal was really foregrounded for me at this time. I remember my aural experience of Fauna’s Rain (2006) being very deeply affected by Steven Shakespeare’s commentary in that collection, ‘The Light That Illuminates Itself, The Dark That Soils Itself: Blackened Notes From Schelling’s Underground.’ Shakespeare is a brilliant black metal theorist, he really knows how to think with the music. His insights in that text, on the changing nature of black metal, on deep ecology, and melancholy, particularly as it emerges out of this conflicted desire for a pre-modern pastoral world, really affected my aural experience. You once asked Nicola Masciandaro, why intellectualism about black metal? And I remember he said to you, why not? Especially if it improves the music i.e. the black metal in my head. Well, black metal theory improved black metal for me, and it was foregrounded – indeed became a central part of my life – from that experience of listening to Fauna and WTTR and thinking with the music through Shakespeare’s phenomenological reading, hence black metal theory’s essential function, as Masciandaro would have it, ‘of exposing and exploring the non-difference between thought and metal.’
L-R: Joseph Russo, Steven Shakespeare, Niall Scott, and Nicola Masciandaro (Hideous Gnosis).
DI: Your work is guided by Georges Bataille. Do you see traces of his philosophy in black metal and if so, is it rather random that black metal musicians might come up with parallels to this Frenchman’s philosophy?
EC: Yes, and no, I don’t think it is random at all, inchoate, perhaps, in instances, but never random. Particularly in French black metal. Not necessarily because Bataille himself was French, or because French black metal has never been shy of intellectualism, but because it is more explicitly mystical, sonorously and so on, and from there I think we can see traces of Bataille’s thought in black metal more generally, especially as he is read through Nick Land, for example, in The Thirst for Annihilation (1992); which, of course, even sounds like a black metal album, instantly intriguing, a sort of heretical inversion of the premise that ‘liking the way it sounds without knowing what is meant is very metal.’ Anyway, I’m reminded of this here because you used the word ‘philosophy,’ and this is the key to answering this question correctly, or certainly as best I can. At some point in this publication, Land, musing on our dead God, begins by saying that ‘Bataille does not transmit a philosophy, but rather a delirious negative evangile: “death can be tasted.”’ It follows, that if death can be tasted for Bataille, his gargantuan appetite or, thirst for annihilation, if you like, grows out of an attempt to link the sensuous and corporeal with an ineffable first principle and this, coupled with a virulent disdain for the Western metaphysical tradition, insofar as this tradition is understood to have determined the sensational emptiness of modern life, is how he comes to precede Masciandaro, however obliquely, as a highly unorthodox but nevertheless key thinker in the contemporary retrieval of Neoplatonism; particularly apophasis, which is a powerful, widely, and significantly present, but little recognized feature of black metal.
L-R: Nicola Masciandaro, Paul J. Ennis (P.E.S.T.), and Aspasia Stephanou (Melancology).
Most black metal theory and, of course, all of Masciandaro’s oeuvre, as its inaugurator, is unknowingly driven by the defining phenomenological features of apophasis – the negative way of unknowing and unsaying – we find in black metal. The central feature is one of loss, or of losing, whether that is in the sense of declarative meaning in the instrumental or vocal orientation of the genre, or in those corresponding moments in interviews where the black metal artist, ‘asked to articulate the deeper meaning in their music/philosophy … retreats/advances into tautological reductiveness (it’s just fucking metal) or some absolute emotion or stance (I hate everything, I just do what I like).’ This kind of loss or learned ignorance apropos of Nicholas Cusanus is both epistemic and existential, we find the dysphoric affective quality of it in monstrosity – hence the masks/corpse paint of the genre – and in self-violence – the much maligned theatre of blood. And while this divestment of certainty and of self is mostly painful, as we all (un)know, it can be cause for positive emotion too. An oft cited passage from Bataille that seems to capture this best, for black metal theorists, brings us back to the death of God: ‘THE OBJECT OF ECSTASY IS THE ABSENCE OF AN OUTSIDE ANSWER. THE INEXPLICABLE PRESENCE OF MAN IS THE ANSWER THE WILL GIVES ITSELF, SUSPENDED IN THE VOID OF UNKNOWABLE NIGHT.’
L-R: Eugene Thacker (Melancology), Caoimhe Doyle, Katherine Foyle (True Detection, DBN, 2014), and Ben Woodard (Melancology).
DI: Black Metal Theory attempts at thinking with rather than on black metal. Thus it is quite different from academic scholarship. I know some scholars who work in the field of Metal Studies who don’t own a very high opinion of Black Metal Theory as the writings seem too oblique and abstract, not closely connected to the object of interest, that is black metal.
EC: Amusing, since they couldn’t be closer, in fact: as a phenomenological extension of the architecture of apophasis, the epistemic loss or learned ignorance we find in black metal. How to explain this further? One way to broach the subject would be to agree with these scholars and say, yes, as it stands, black metal theory is essentially a para-academic discipline and, as such, has less to do with the humanities and more to do with humanism, what Masciandaro would call ‘an apophatic humanism, one grounded in the passion of the question as the substance of human being.’ One might then add that, in its methodological commitment to materialize the question, black metal theory is necessarily oblique and abstract.
L-R: Diarmuid Hester, Michael O’Rourke (P.E.S.T.), and Scott Wilson, E.S.S.E. et al (pre-P.E.S.T.).
DI: Still another side of the coin might be musicians playing this style of metal music. Keith Kahn-Harris wrote about their ‘anti-reflexive reflexivity’ in his monograph on extreme metal, that the musicians oppose against too much theory involved in their creation of black metal songs. The style is understood as pure instinct and simultaneously involved in a history of metal music which asks for progressing provocation. What do you think about their resentments?
EC: I’m not exactly sure what Keith intends with his employment of the term ‘anti-reflexive reflexivity,’ but I’m lecturing alongside him in Denmark in Spring so can quiz him on it then. For now I’ll say there is a significant difference between the reflexive and the instinctual. If by instinct we understand a behavior or an action that is performed without being based on prior experience, that is, in the absence of learning, black metal theory’s commentarial method may be similarly construed as pure instinct and is simultaneously involved in a history of metal music, as an extension of the lyric tradition Masciandaro traces ‘from the troubadour anthologies of the thirteenth century … to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of album commentaries.’ Consider black metal theory’s emergence in Masciandaro’s commentary on heavy metal’s originary song, the commentary is literally and literarily running ‘on a feeling deep inside/ That drives you fuckin’ mad/ A feeling of a hammerhead/ You need it oh so bad.’
L-R: Niall Scott, Scott Wilson, Steven Shakespeare, Erik Butler (Hideous Gnosis), and the proceedings from Melancology, ed. Wilson (Winchester and Washington: Zero Books, 2014).
L-R: The proceedings from the first black metal theory symposium, Hideous Gnosis (2010), Black Metal: Beyond The Darkness (2012), and Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory (2013).
L-R: MOUTH (Edia Connole & Scott Wilson), Land: A Scarcity Banquet (DBN, 2013), Exploring Bataille’s Accursed Share Project (UWE/AGAIN, Bristol, 2014).
DI: Your own work revolves around the MOUTH and culinary consumption. In black metal an open mouth enables the singer to shape screams – it helps to express anger at the world and disgust. What other options of opening and shutting mouths in black metal do you see.
EC: I see the buccal mouth, what Mark Fisher would call the ‘unheard material pre-condition’ of screaming, of eating, of spitting, or of speaking. I discuss this in the context of Les Légions Noires and Vordb’s conception of Gloatre in the book I’m currently co-authoring with Masciandaro, Floating Tomb: Black Metal, Theory, and Mysticism (forthcoming from Mimesis, 2015).
DI: Eugene Thacker was doing research on prevailing horror motives in black metal. He also consulted demonological treatises to approach black metal as apocalyptic culture. Do you think that these cultural researches will grow in number? So far, other sub-genres have been preferred in metal studies. Do you see reasons?
EC: I consulted a demon myself recently, she said ‘my foresight closes the world to me.’
L-R: Niall Scott, and the birth of black metal theory in the proceedings of the first global conference on metal, Heavy Fundametalisms, organised by Scott, and held in Salzburg, Austria, 2008.
L-R: A selection of black metal theory and related publications and events.