Cannibal Corpse: Towards an Ethics of Death Metal

Michelle Phillipov
Michelle Phillipov

The recent emergence of “affect” as a key term in cultural and communication studies has provided new vocabularies for describing dimensions of experience previously neglected in analyses focused on wider questions of social identity and structural inequality. Yet at the same time as it has opened up productive new avenues of theory and analysis, questions of “affect” have been incorporated somewhat unevenly within the cultural study of popular music, due to the unease that growing interest in the experiential dimensions of cultural experience may ultimately eclipse more practical material and sociological concerns.

Angela McRobbie, for instance, argues that cultural studies’ priority should lie not with the development of a theoretical vocabulary sophisticated enough to capture the affective specificity of sonic experience, but with addressing more “politically relevant” issues of music as a site of employment, skill acquisition, labour relations and cultural capital (1999, p. 134).

For McRobbie, critics should resist the temptation to “disappear entirely into the more intellectually tantalising but politically less useful project of searching for a theoretical language to measure up to the dizzying brilliance of contemporary music making”, and instead adopt a more pragmatic, sociological approach to the politics of music and music making “based on the question of what academics can say or do which might be useful” (1999, pp. 134, 142).

This concern with the “usefulness” of cultural and communication studies as a scholarly practice has been a recurring one for many of its practitioners. For these scholars, studies ideally operate as an “interventionist” discourse engaged in a politics of empowerment (Slack & Whitt 1992, p. 572).

Although a good deal of work has been produced without the influence of this kind of thinking, the notion of research driven by a political, ethical and/or moral commitment to social transformation remains a central motivating assumption for many in the field. In such cases, as Gary Wickham argues, “the ethical direction any practitioner needs to take must be a moral direction — ethics cannot be allowed to wander away from morality — the morality involved being expressed as political engagement, in a movement, on behalf of the disempowered” (2005, p. 72).

According to this view — a dominant one within the field — the recent affective turn problematises this interventionist commitment insofar as affect’s a-signifying, jouissant and/or pre-personal experiences resist ready articulation to the kinds of coherent ethical and political frameworks necessary for an effective “intervention”.

Of course, at key moments within the cultural study of popular music, affective experience has been linked to political outcomes. For example, studies of dance music and rave culture have often theorised the affective, libidinal dissolution of self-enabled by rave as posing significant challenges to an oppressive Western hegemony characterised by bourgeois puritanism, phallologocentric subjectivity and rationalist modernity (Gilbert & Pearson 1999, p. 162; Martin 1999, p. 77). Nonetheless, much of this work is somewhat cautious in investing too much faith in the transformative power of affective experience. Gilbert and Pearson, for instance, worry that liberatory jouissance, if left untheorised, may be nothing but an empty space from which no political position can possibly be articulated (1999, p. 162).

Ultimately, then, much of this work validates affective experience only insofar as it can find unanimity with a commitment to political and structural transformation. Cultural forms invested in affectivities less easily assimilated into interventionist agendas, on the other hand, tend to be met with far less approbation.

In this article, I will explore this tendency in relation to recent research on death metal music, and in particular, to the recent writings of Keith Kahn-Harris (2003, 2004a, 2004b) who, in his earlier work, wrote under the name of Harris (2001). “Death metal” refers to a subgenre of music which “radicalise[s]” the better-known genre of heavy metal (Kahn-Harris 2004b, p. 108). In its predilection for speed, down-tuned guitars and growled vocals, death metal eschews its parent genre’s emphasis on melody and clean singing.

The subgenre also forms part of the wider extreme metal scene, a movement which rejects the “commercial” pretensions of traditional heavy metal in favour of a self-consciously “underground” economy of production and distribution.

Kahn-Harris’s sustained engagement with the scene via doctoral research and personal affiliation has produced some of the most sensitive and insightful work on the subject to date. Strictly speaking, Kahn-Harris is not a cultural or communication studies researcher, but in his “moral commitment” to social justice (Harris 2001, p. 73), he shares many of the field’s interventionist concerns. Likewise, his work also shares a key limitation of cultural studies and of the politically-motivated humanities more generally: a problem of accounting for the affective dimensions of social and aesthetic practices within analytical frameworks primarily concerned with the ethical and political implications of such practices. While cultural and communication studies’ interest in the ethico-political significance of various cultural forms is both valid and important, it is my contention that such concerns often subsume diverse and ambiguous practices into ideological agendas limited in their ability to account for the affective specificities of social and aesthetic experience. To this end, Kahn- Harris’s work serves as a means to think through some of these issues.

Concerned that death metal’s interest in sonic and lyrical transgression sometimes results in bands promoting sexism and misogyny within the metal community, Kahn-Harris attempts to develop a “textual politics” of the scene in order to differentiate between positive and retrograde instances of transgression (2003, p. 93). He does this, in part, by comparing the aesthetic projects of British death/grind act Carcass with American death metal band Cannibal Corpse.

The lyrics of both bands deal virtually without exception with the manifold ways in which the body can be destroyed and mutilated. Carcass is fascinated by physical decomposition as a site for imagining new (and often comedic) experiences of the body and of the self; lyrics often ask the listener to picture his or her own body in various stages of decay and disintegration. In contrast to this “second-person” perspective in which the subject matter is almost totally ungendered, Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics are dominated by a first-person perspective “overwhelmingly concerned with mastery over a female Other” (Kahn- Harris 2003, p. 82).

While not all protagonists are male and not all victims are female, the centrality of fantasies of sexual violence and misogynistic murder within Cannibal Corpse’s oeuvre makes the US group’s lyrics problematic in a way that Carcass’s are not. For Kahn- Harris, this is a problem not so much of the impact such representations might have on audience behaviour (he does not expect fans to engage in any real acts of murder and mutilation as a result of listening to Cannibal Corpse), but one of the ethics of a scene in which such depictions are treated as unremarkable, and even as amusing.

Interestingly, Cannibal Corpse’s misogyny is seen to be not just enacted lyrically, but enacted musically as well. Whereas in Carcass’s music, “any sense of organic musical flow [is][…] ruptured by tempo changes and gear shifts’ which radically destabilise the song form” (Reynolds & Press 1995, p. 94), Cannibal Corpse’s musical approach is one characterised by greater focus and control, based around structured repetitions and clear riffs. Kahn-Harris quantifies this difference in ethical and political terms: “While Carcass musically and lyrically revels in fantasies of losing oneself in the abject, Cannibal Corpse musically and lyrically presents fantasies of mastering and dominating it. Although both bands explore transgression, Cannibal Corpse, in fact, reinforces certain limits through its emphasis on control. That control is achieved partially through extreme musical discipline and partially through obsessively constructing images of dominant masculinity” (Kahn-Harris 2003, p. 86).

For Kahn-Harris, this comparison serves to demonstrate the ease with which a radical, transgressive project that questions the boundaries of the body can be transformed into a “more sinister project that strongly affirms both gendered bodies and the violent forms of power through which gender is strongly affirmed” (2003, p. 87).

Yet even more troubling than the specific content of individual death metal texts is the “silence and inarticulacy” through which scene members confront any discussion of the ethico-political implications of the music they produce and consume (Kahn-Harris 2004a, p. 105). Not only that, death metal adherents also tend to resist inquiry into how the music effects/affects them more generally.

He cites a “typical” response from an interview subject who, when asked why he likes Cannibal Corpse, replied: “I do not think there is a reason it appeals to me. It is just [that] I like it, you know? It not the sort of thing you can say, ‘I like it because…’…It is [something that is] just there” (quoted in Kahn-Harris 2003, p. 90).

For Kahn-Harris, such comments are demonstrative of a general tendency towards what he refers to as “reflexive anti-reflexivity”, a term he coined to emphasise that scene members are not simply being unreflexive, but are instead choosing not to engage in reflexive practice (Harris 2001, p. 184).

As a result, the extreme metal scene becomes a space in which musical texts and social practices can be disengaged. “I am not arguing that music can ever be totally ‘autonomous’ from the social conditions of its production and consumption”, Kahn-Harris writes, “but certainly within the extreme metal scene[,] members attempt to keep music and practice at arms length from each other” (2003, p. 90).

While this is one of the main sources of pleasure that the scene offers its adherents, allowing them to explore transgressive themes textually without the scene itself ever becoming unequivocally transgressive, the disengage ability of text and practice is often converted into an active refusal to engage with questions of power and textual politics within the scene. For instance, female scene members are often “vociferous” in claiming that they are not offended by bands with misogynistic lyrics: “although women can and do get involved in the scene”, Kahn-Harris concludes, “that involvement depends on not questioning the overall dominance of men” (2003, pp. 91–2).

Kahn-Harris finds scene members’ repeated unwillingness to address political questions regarding the scene’s internal “structures of domination” to be “very problematic” (2004a, p. 108), and as a result, the question of “what we might ‘do’ about the scene” has subtly troubled much of his analysis (see Harris 2001, p. 209).

In his earlier work he argues that the scene should be exposed to the kind of reflexive inquiry it has thus far resisted, not so much via the endeavours of “outsiders” as through the efforts of critical insiders coming to the scene from different musical or political spaces — people, like former Terrorizer Magazine editor Nick Terry, whose background in rock journalism, leftist politics and post-structuralist criticism has motivated him to subtly use his magazine as a forum to interrogate and challenge inequalities within the scene (Harris 2001, p. 211).

As Harris elaborated: “the scene should be ‘opened’ to dialogue, in order that […][unacceptable] forms of power can be challenged […]. The scene has to be opened up to the processes of reflexive modernisation from which, at present, it is insulated” (2001, p. 210).

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