Music and Messianic Politics
By Hunter Hunt-Hendrix | April 5, 2016 | 10:00 AM
This article originally appeared in AdHoc Issue 11. Order a physical copy here and a digital copy here. Subscribe here.
If we take politics to amount to an iterative endeavor in the name of freedom and justice, music appears as capable of politics in two fundamentally opposite ways. We can call these FEDERATION and TRANSFIGURATION, respectively. If these two poles of music’s power could be coordinated, which they typically are not, music could potentially engage in politics adequate to the unique social and ecological catastrophe of the present day.
When people get excited by music, something non-musical or beyond-musical gets unlocked, something social: an unconscious sense of affiliation or identification as part of a virtual community is awakened, together with a belief system. This is where music’s power of FEDERATION appears: music can awaken an identity, a world view, a horizon of meaning.
The virtue of D.I.Y. is that it is reflexive about this power of FEDERATION. D.I.Y. politicizes the musical power of FEDERATION as an end in itself, a sort of liberating horizon: a scene. The D.I.Y. community is political by virtue of its very existence, an off-the-grid economy of cassettes, vinyl, underground venues, parties, SoundClouds, and so on, or a safe space for polymorphous social and sexual subjectivities, prioritizing relationships over profit. Both represent an alternative to the dominant way of life in late capitalist culture (1). The “message” of the music may or may not be political, but the social structure is.
But music has a more directly sonic aspect, too, one that has nothing to do with community and has the opposite effect: the power of TRANSFIGURATION, a dis-identification with all social structures, freeing the individual on an existential level. This dimension is obvious in the case of of religious music like naada yoga, ecstatic qawwali, the Catholic mass: union with God, dissolution of the ego, or at least extrication from ideological sutures.
The reflexive version of music of TRANSFIGURATION, corresponding to D.I.Y. for the music of FEDERATION, is the western classical tradition. Since the 19th century, when it gained autonomy from political and religious power, classical music has made deliberate use of compositional form and mathematical ratios to engage with emotion and attention in a cathartic, liberating way—be it through the tension and release of chromatic harmony during the Romantic era, or the awakening of new powers of perception via novel sounds by the 20th-century avant-garde (2). At its purest, classical music is an autonomous art; it does not re-inscribe the subject in any higher God, nation, or community. It is liberation-in-itself.
Readers of AdHoc will be aware of the tradition of counterculture music that began with rock & roll, soul, and funk; transitioned via a process of auto-critique and radicalization into punk, no wave, house, techno, electro, etc.; and currently thrives as experimental club music. Following a bleak period during the early aughts, political music is now thriving again—although it is typically not so much overtly political (protest music) as political on the level of social structure. Particularly in electronic music, we’ve witnessed the rise of polymorphous identity among producers, DJs, and rappers, many of them female, non-white, queer, and transgender while also embodying a singular becoming, one encompassing both the anti-patriarchal and the mystic/cyber transhuman.
Sadly, the problems of our world far exceed the realm of the social. It is widely discussed that our time is apocalyptic—even doubly apocalyptic. We live between two catastrophes that are so enormous they are practically unthinkable. Behind us, we have the WESTERN APOCALYPSE of the 20th century, one that destroyed the horizon of western optimism: the unspeakable tragedy of World Wars I and II (3). In the future, we face an apocalypse at a level even deeper than the social: a material COSMIC APOCALYPSE, one in which human industry continues to inflict irreversible damage to the physical world (ie, global warming), while completely transforming the biological world (eg, gene editing). This pole of apocalypse is concerned less with human social arrangements than with things like weather patterns, temperatures, thresholds between different states of matter, populations of different species, genes, and augmented and virtual reality. It’s well known that droughts due to rising temperatures and the increased connectivity of social media are both major factors in the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, the immigration crisis, and so on.
The double apocalypse creates a pair of deadlocks:
1. Fixing social problems will not save us: weather and technology will destroy us anyway.
2. Even if we engage with weather and technology, it is too late. That might sound bleak, but in 2015 there is a palpable sense that the damage has already been done. To make matters worse, the nations of the world can’t even agree on taking steps to minimize it.
But these deadlocks are not a cause for defeatism—instead we can learn from them and arrive at two criteria for a politics that would be appropriate to the situation:
1. It has to be ecological. Dialectical materialism—with its focus on economics and political equality between humans—is not enough (4).
2. It would have to tap into a source of power beyond what is humanly possible, since it is too late for human intervention to have an effect. Therefore, what is required is a messianic politics of apocalyptic revelation. A politics that honestly faces today’s challenge has to return to the world-historical horizon of western progress and Abrahamic religion: to engage the practice of faith, beyond reason, in a redeemed world to come, which is the legacy of Judaism/Christianity/Islam. It also has to engage in esoteric, alchemical practices, invoking divine power to alter matter itself.
Although that proposal may sound completely insane, it can be supported by a particular thread in philosophy that has been developing since around the year 2000 (5), albeit heavily influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s work from the ’60s through the ’90s—a philosophy with a scope that goes beyond the social, existential, and humanly political. This philosophy deals with the desire and differential forces inherent in matter itself—systems, chaos, self-organization, germinal life. It makes use of a wide variety of scientific tools, like complex systems theory, chaos theory, and Riemannian geometry. It mines the history of medieval Christian and Islamic mysticism, going beyond phenomenology, existentialism, and the linguistic turn in philosophy towards a wider field of reference.
From this orientation of thought, we can extract two principles:
1. There are no transcendent laws of any kind, be they social, biological, natural. The cosmos could yield literally anything, and it requires no reason for activating one law versus another. This is for the most part substantiated by our current understanding of the Big Bang as giving rise to many universes with different electromagnetic and gravitational laws (6). Quentin Meillassoux, for his part, has made a strange but also compelling argument that if we rigorously follow through with this reasoning about the contingency of the material world, we arrive at the conclusion that it is logically and physically possible for a messiah to be born who could resurrect the dead and grant eternal life to all humans. (7).
2. There is a continuity between the ideal and the real. Mind, society, life, art, and matter are all woven together and follow the same basic contours of creation. Concepts, biological species, organs like the hand or the eye, social structures like banks, nations and scenes, geological structures—these all appear, become, and pass away according to the same principles, and they directly engage with and affect one another. The social energy thresholds at a party—the way it starts off sort of awkwardly, reaches a critical mass of hive mind consciousness, boils over and dissipates—obeys the same abstract principles as the transformation of water from ice to liquid, as well as the evolution of species, chemicals, hormones, intentions in architecture, fashion cycles, electricity, and sound waves. Are join together in assemblages.
Since a redeemer-messiah could be born (because of the first principle), and since human art could cause this to happen (because of the second principle), it follows that music could, in principle, yield the birth of this redeemer-messiah. I know this formulation is elliptical, but I hope it is clear.
So what does this mean for music and politics? So far, we have only accounted for music that addresses either the individual (TRANSFIGURATION) or the social (FEDERATION); neither of these touches upon the ecological. Still, I would argue that the classical music made after World War II, marked by the names Ligeti, Xenakis, and Grisey, would seem to operate according to a principle that addresses, not the individual nor the social, but matter itself: ALCHEMY.
This music has an uncanny connection to the developments within philosophy that have begun during the 21st century: use of stochastic algorithms, converting non-linear dynamics of natural systems into musical notation; chaos theory; complex systems theory; the principles of becoming that are inherent to nature, both organic and inorganic. Perhaps by using these physical structures, music could trigger an eschaton in the way that an enzyme catalyzes a metamorphosis, or the way that ice turns to liquid when it crosses a boiling point. We will call this new kind of musical politics ALCHEMY. Beyond the politics of TRANSFIGURATION (transformation of human subjectivity), and the politics of FEDERATION (transformation of society), the politics of ALCHEMY addresses matter.
Because of technological hurdles, perhaps, this music is currently cut off from the wider world—the western classical tradition, for one, seems dead in a lot of ways, unlike the western tradition of fine art. In the 1960s, with the rise of pop art and then hyper-reflexive institutional critique, fine art struck up a connection with creative and cultural production outside of the longstanding “high culture” western tradition, one it has maintained through the early 2000s, with Bernadette Corporation and more recently DIS magazine, etc. Classical music hasn’t been able to do this; the 18th- and 19th-century canon is preserved by municipal philharmonics for the very rich, and contemporary avant-garde music is somewhat hermetically sealed in universities.
But, in part because of the rise of cheaper and more powerful technology, there’s no reason for this divide to continue: and that’s where experimental electronic music comes back in, especially digitally generated music. Now, anyone with the internet can download Melodyne, Ableton, Sibelius, and Logic, and use the same tools for spectral analysis and algorithmic composition that were so coveted at IRCAM—and these sounds can be brought to the wider world, to clubs and shows, MP3s and records. The promethean alchemical fire is now in our hands.
It’s hard to describe, but I can imagine a computer music that embodies this combination of FEDERATION, TRANSFIGURATION, and ALCHEMY—not so much combined into a unity, but into a roiling, contradictory mess, like mental and emotional gymnastics courses on which the soul can discover its true nature, only to abandon this nature and replace it. It would be a flux of clashing identities, imperatives, and motifs: noise, cloud rap, punk, metal, avant-garde music from the IRCAM-era, romantic tone poems, medieval masses, candy ravers, Elisabethan aristocrats, brooding modernists. It would experiment with frequencies, vibrations, hyper-compressed and hyper-extended temporal durations, stochastic irregularities, and phase spaces at the inner, interpersonal, organic, and inorganic levels. And all of it would clash together as a super-cultural counter-identification with the one true God in an eschatological supercollider, creating particles of faith, hope and love.
1. Slavoj Zizek identifies this type of community as the legacy of Christianity, the “body of christ” unified by love, a common utopian project, an “open signifier”, rather than by national/class/ethnic social inscription. See his book The Fragile Absolute.
2. For the former, see Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, for the latter see Stockhausen’s essay “On the Musical Gift” in Stockhausen: Lectures and Interviews.
3. The “Blueprint for Armageddon” series of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is an amazing gloss on the cataclysm of World War I.
4. On inorganic life and the politics and ethics of ecology see Eugene Thacker, After Life, and Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects.
5. Starting, I would argue, with Manuel Delanda’s book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, and picking up steam in the last decade on the internet, first under the “speculative realism” flag and more recently as “object-oriented ontology”.
6. See Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design.
7. See his essay “Spectral Dilemma” and also notes from his unfinished manuscript for Divine Inexistence, published in Graham Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making.
8. For example, Ligeti’s piece Clocks and Clouds is composed along the lines of Deleuze’s famous distinction between the virtual and the actual.
If you have any interest in underground metal, black or otherwise, you’re aware of the uproar created by Brooklyn quartet Liturgy. Much of the disdain’s focused on frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, and what people view as his “pretentious” reading of black metal (American and otherwise). I did the first large-scale interview with Liturgy a couple of years ago as part of my (then) Show No Mercy column: Hendrix discussed black metal in the same terms in ’09, but it was a more recent Scion video Q+A, coupled with the “crossover” coverage of the band’s newest offering Aesthethica that’s rankled and riled folks. For instance, a couple week’s ago Chris Grigg, the Philadelphia multi-instrumentalist behind HTC regulars Woe, wrote an open letter to Hendrix as an installment of his “decidedly irregular” Metal Review column at Metal Review. (In 2009 I organized a show with Krieg, Woe, Liturgy, and Malkuth; everyone got along.) It was an interesting text, as to be expected from someone as thoughtful as Grigg, though I found myself disagreeing with it. In my opinion, most of the criticism thrust upon Liturgy (and Hendrix) — usually reactionary, only occasionally interesting — hasn’t warranted a reply. This one, however, did. Grigg and Hunt-Hendrix are young multi-instrumentalists and the central forces behind their non-traditional East Coast black metal projects: They both experiment ambitiously, albeit differently, with black metal structures/tropes and don’t present themselves as cookie-cutter BM frontmen. With that (etc.) in mind, I asked Hendrix if he’d be into writing a response, not just to Grigg, but to the black metal “blogsophere” at large re: the Great Liturgy Wars Of 2011. He was. This is it:
There has been a firestorm of criticism in the metal blogosphere about Liturgy and about me personally (ad hominem) and my ideas. I don’t know how to respond directly to it because I don’t recognize the object of attack — it is a phantasm, a caricature, something different from the reality of our band and the reality of my personality, beliefs, aims, vision and so on. All I know is that I am not the arch-enemy of the black metal community, and that the internet is a crazy thing. And yet I’m not totally surprised by the reaction. And, though sometimes it makes me feel bad, at other times it fascinates me … a chord has been struck somewhere.
So here I offer a few loosely related thoughts on black metal and counterculture: black metal is really profound as a culture and as a musical style — more so than many people realize. I am very interested in an ethics concerned with ecstasy, the transcendental, and affirmation. Liturgy comes from the intersection of these two ideas. For me, black metal’s virtue is that it can, using a combination of history, sound, and audacity, activate a connection to a sort of transcendental field, the perennial occult, the Absolute … that it touches the spiritual and poetic channels of impossibility that are closed up most of the time. Or, at least, this is a potential within black metal. It can be isolated from other aspects of black metal and enhanced by means of cross-fertilization with other resonant forms of music. The task of Transcendental Black Metal is this isolation and enhancement.
Black metal is both an index of the death of the counterculture tradition and a way to to resurrect it. What right do I have to say that? I have none — but this business of doing things one has no right to do is crucial to my outlook. I think counterculture lost its way when it turned its back on the revolutionary-spiritual-psychosexual-utopian ambition that gave birth to it and settled for a general attitude of “No.” Impotent gestures of resistance to a system which will obviously always easily digest and extract exchange value from those gestures, the formation of little subcultures where people escape reality by congratulating each other for resembling one another – that is a dead, or at least very sick counterculture, one that the system has contained. Today the gestures themselves have almost died out. Mostly I just see cynical tribalism and people wanting to seem cool. That goes for almost every subculture, metal or otherwise. The term “Hyperborean Black Metal” refers explicitly to the explicit nihilism in black metal – but its real referent is the implicit nihilism in all rock; it refers to subculture identification as such, which in my view is ultimately a social neurosis, a blockage, something bad.
An American black metal that uses some BM techniques but combines them with the usual Anglo-American punk attitude is maybe inevitably coming into existence, but that’s not what Liturgy is, it’s not what I’m interested in. I think music should be global, Universal, not anti-anything or -anyone. It should be anti-anti, if anything. And it should be directed towards the universal goodness at the core of every human being, and it should address each person alone, as an individual. Our music is neither aimed at any particular niche audience, like the “metal community”, nor the widest possible audience – it is simply the product of an intense urge, and it is directed in principle to anyone, generically.
Part of what drew me to black metal is the courage of members of the second wave. Something in their attitude allowed them to burst through the counterculture’s carcass. That attitude is: grandiosity. I grew up more or less in the orbit of punk, but never really fit into it. It’s because I’ve always had an almost unbearably intense sort of Wagnerian ambition … the urge to create a system glowing with ethical power … there’s just no place for that in punk. But in black metal there is in fact a place for this ambition. I have a sense of pregnancy, in the sense that Henry Miller or Nietzsche talk about pregnancy. I feel pulled by an urge to create, to give birth to the greatest work of art I can possibly produce, with black metal as a starting point and always as a frame of reference. To generate a cultural product that doesn’t just express the despicable state of affairs in the world, but something that, on the contrary, is a spark. Something that triggers a higher state, opens up a possibility. And this amounts to a kind of primordial, cosmic, excruciating “Yes.” Aesthethica isn’t necessarily product, but it is a step on the way. Maybe the whole thing will ultimately fail and the haters will rejoice. Whatever.
A lot of people don’t take metal seriously as art, and a lot of people don’t take art seriously as ethics. That’s fine, I guess — but as for myself, I do both. These days, when people detect ambition in someone they leap on that person like hyenas. The label “pretentious” is unquestioned as categorically damning. But I think musical culture could use a whole lot more pretension, if anything. It suffers from false, dishonest humility, and from a lack of ambition to be more than either entertainment or a badge of identification with a group. I think the haters have blinders on, and that they are misdirecting their aggressive energy. Somehow, they are hiding.
I’m interested in the act of declaring something and daring others to disagree; there’s something magical about it. So maybe the caricature I mentioned above is exactly what I want. It’s like planting a little sprout that gets watered from the frothing mouths of those who are enraged by its existence. It is a part of the child-rearing. My word for this is: “The Arkwork.” Liturgy is an Arkwork. It’s not just the songs, albums, shows — it’s also the reactions, the suffering, the stigma, the misrecognitions, the resoluteness, the unexpected detours. To be “pretentious,” grandiose, to remain faithful to an impossible goal, to stay in contact with one’s own desire and follow through with its consequences, unsure of what they will be … to be real. That’s what it is to live, I think, and to spread life. I hardly know why I’m writing this and have doubts that it’s a “good idea,” but the act is consistent I think with the ethic I’m trying to describe.
– Hunter Hunt-Hendrix