Saturday, 14 May 2011

Heavy Metal and the Other Side of Culture

Abstract for The Home of Metal Conference, 1st-4th September 2011.

‘Technology's progression, over man machines reign
Enslaved without compassion, new masters of (the) earth we dwell
Human life is worthless, in this automated living hell’.
Bolt Thrower, ‘Profane Creation’ War Master 1991.
‘We no longer judge such technical developments from without, we no longer judge at all, we function: machined/ machining in eccentric orbits about the technocosm. Humanity recedes like a loathsome dream’.
Nick Land, ‘Circuitries’, (1992).

This talk looks at two moments in the history of the non-relation between metal and academia that find coincidentally their location in Birmingham and the Midlands: heavy metal and cultural studies; Grindcore/death metal and the Warwick philosophy group associated with Nick Land in the early 1990s.

It is well known that both heavy metal and Cultural Studies emerged in the Midlands in the 1960s. But if they were born in the same town, the movements associated with Stuart Hall and Ozzy Osbourne have had little to do with one another, perhaps because Cultural Studies academics saw, in heavy metal, only a monocultural (predominantly white, male) form unsuitable as a vehicle for political transformation. Ironically, Cultural Studies’ development into the study of identities established in consumable differences stands accused of preparing the ground for a different kind of political transformation that has resulted in the full marketization of the Humanities. Metal, meanwhile, over the same period, has become the name under which multiple styles, scenes and festivals have articulated the pleasures, desires, discontents and demands of numerous people across Europe and the rest of the world. As I have suggested elsewhere, metal could be regarded (in the language of Cultural Studies) as the popular cultural, counter-hegemonic form par excellence in so far as national and regional varieties of DM, BM, Viking, folk, doom, ambient and so on have become the positive reverse of the absence of any political alternative to the ‘globalatinization’ represented by institutions like the EU, on the one hand, and neoliberal consumer culture on the other.

Metal as an explicitly political form derives from the legacy of Grindcore, particularly Napalm Death, who in some ways provide a point of punk-inspired cross-over into Cultural Studies-style political investment in popular culture, but from a position of deep ambivalence towards humanity, if not a profound anti-humanism. At the same time in Warwick’s philosophy department, in the circle around Nick Land, the writings of Nietzsche and Bataille were re-animated to inform an extreme, nihilist version of Deleuze and Guattari that celebrated the destructive forces of global capitalism as the most radical form of ‘machinic desire’. Death metal bands like Coventry’s Bolt Thrower, meanwhile, echoed Land’s contention that ‘war in its intensive state is desire itself, convulsive recurrence, unilateral zero’. Exulting in the destruction of liberal culture and the universal humanities, Land’s acolytes breathlessly embraced the promise of techno-science, particularly digitalization, as represented in cyberpunk, Blade Runner and The Terminator movies. As dated as some of it seems now, this imagination provided the impetus for developing a ‘para-academic’ space on the network that provided some of the most interesting and innovative models for the survival of thought in the ruins of the university, in virtual spaces where much of the new academic interest in metal currently resides. Contemporary academic interest in metal follows this logic and is the effect of a generation of graduates, metallectuals on the margins of the Academy, for whom metal’s ‘unemployed negativity’ provides the most appropriate vehicle with which to articulate not just their discontent and contestation of the violence of neoliberal subjectification in state institutions, but also and as such to forge a different form of intellectual life on the other side of culture.