Aesthetics and the Symbolism of Extreme Metal Music

Matthew P. Unger
Matthew P. Unger

I argue that aesthetics represents not an autonomous field of judgment as modern theories of aesthetics contend, but instead a socially discursive field in which different and often surprising social spheres interact.

I argue that in aesthetic discourses we discover that these social spheres do not exist autonomously — even religious discourses — but ground each other and constrain each other.

I preface my argument on the normative imperative of sound — that sound is symbolic in much the same way language is symbolic; both are opaque discourses that open a world to the reader and/or listener.

Using a theory of aesthetics extracted from Ricoeur’s philosophical texts on symbols can help us understand the manner in which different social discourses interact.

I argue that in extreme metal, because of the manner in which symbols, divested from meta-narratives, become diffuse, creative, and poetic expressions, defilement is the symbolic nodal point around which significant contemporary social discourses converge. This nodal point grounds many of the aesthetic decisions within extreme metal and underscores how symbols motivate social patterns and lead to a diversity of creative interpretations.

Paul Ricoeur’s interpretation of symbols in his early texts on the symbolism of sin, guilt, and defilement (Ricoeur 1969, 2004 ) provides an interesting explanation for the critical change in our symbolic frameworks.

For previous generations, according to Ricoeur, significant symbolic myths contained explanations of things in the world. Contemporary trends of nihilism and the predominance of science and rational forms of thinking have divested these symbols of their etiological value.

Our frameworks of meaning have passed through the critique of religion through the significant thinkers of Nietzsche, Freud, and the discipline of sociology. Yet, the divestment of the etiological significance of symbols and myths in the critical age does not destroy and make meaningless these same structures, but rather critique allows them to come to life as what they truly are.

In Ricoeur’s words, “an idol must die so that symbols can begin to speak” (Ricoeur 2004, 467). As symbols, they become rich, culturally significant, and historically profound signifiers of our historical selves. Rather than disappearing, myths and religious symbols lose this explanatory power as truth statements but come alive artistically and poetically in our imagination (Ricoeur 2004, 461).

What critique does destroy are the meta-narratives that held symbols and myths in dogmatic expressions of truth. As such, these symbols and myths open a world to us in their unlimited potentiality of signifying one’s relationship to the world. Yet, they structure our contemporary consciousness in a far different manner than they had in previous eras.

Contemporary conceptions of causal relations embedded within religious symbols have followed the path of interiorization such that their meaning is negotiated in relationship to the person, group, or work of art for which they exist.

Ricoeur’s interpretation of symbols allows us to analyse symbols as structuring elements in the expression of our worlds of meaning. Defilement is an exemplary expression of this nature of symbols since it is through the demythologization of symbols and understandings of fault that allows an aesthetic resonance to develop within the genre. Therefore, people are able to employ certain symbols within the genre in myriad ways precisely because these symbols are (always) already profaned.

The current era flattens symbols, but in this flattening, symbolic meaning arises. The varying resonances and effects of symbols for different people is what allows people to create, experience, and interpret this music positively.

Ricoeur had moved from a phenomenological approach attempting to understand the conditions of the experience that conditions what Ricoeur calls the “limit experience” of evil. This engagement with symbols forced him to re-evaluate the significance of symbols for the constitution of the human subject.

Influenced by Heidegger’s linguistic ontology, Ricoeur subjected phenomenology’s tendency towards a first philosophy to a hermeneutical analysis of symbols that express possibly fundamental social experiences that always already exceed the reach of a phenomenologist.

As Ihde suggests as well, Ricoeur moved in his analysis of language and symbols towards a social ontology of meaning that incorporates a hermeneutics of existence (Ihde 1974 ). The experience of evil — the symbolic expression of doing and experiencing evil — can only be expressed symbolically, and as such, remains opaque to a direct philosophical analysis.

As a limiting experience that presents an aporia to direct analyses of the formal phenomenology, Ricoeur uses evil to explore the symbolic and mythical foundations of philosophical thought. Only through a long and careful hermeneutical analysis starting from within the myths and symbols themselves can we begin to think through the significance of confession of evil culminating in the theme of the servile will found in both Luther and Spinoza (Ricoeur 1974a ).

In ‘Symbolism of Evil’ (1960), Ricoeur analyses the symbolic consciousness of the confession of evil as existing at the foundations of scientific and speculative interpretations of fault.

Ricoeur is concerned about those social conditions that reflected Nietzsche’s ([1882]1974) formulation of “the death of God.” Ricoeur believes that this pronouncement signified a profound cultural event, reflected in language, symbols, and ethical relations.

For Ricoeur, Nietzsche’s famous phrase describes not merely a philosophical condition but rather a profound change of the conditions through which we use symbols. That is, Ricoeur understands the death of God to be a symbolic condition. Before the critical age, religious symbolisms and discursive structures formed the foundation of our thinking, explanations of the world, and ethical relations.

Now, however, critical thought and the ideas from the famous hermeneuts of suspicion — Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx — have transformed religion irremediably. For Ricoeur, the death of God is primarily constituted by the death of the God of morality ( 1974e ) wherein what has passed are the meta-narratives that structure our relationships with others and the world.

The critique and collapse of meta-narratives dictated by religion, cultural traditions and authoritative social structures have transformed irrevocably structures of meaning, rationalities, and ethical relations. For Ricouer, the result has been a profound change in the way symbolic meanings and ethical norms are stabilised.

Within Ricoeur’s early analysis of religious symbols is the use of a dialogue between two different registers or types of hermeneutics. The first form is that of a regressive analysis of an archeology of desire exemplified by Freud. Regressive modes of analysis, beginning with Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, depend on a critical reading of the potential and ostensible motivations that underlie an event, expression, or social fact.

The exemplary form of this mode of analysis is psychoanalysis. In order to understand the contemporary significance of religious symbolisms we need to reveal the psychosocial functions, condensations, compensations, and archaic resemblances of various social discourses, such as religion as an archaic mode of interaction with the world, or even a false consciousness.

In an age of critique, this revelation of underlying motivations allows for the deconstruction of what Ricoeur calls “the corrupt parts of religion” (Ricoeur 1974, 437). For instance, to use Ricoeur’s example of defilement with ‘The Symbolism of Evil’, if it exists today, then it would merely be a regression to archaic (cathected) social patterns at odds with modern thinking and rationalities.

Embedded within this regressive analysis, however, is a second manner of interpretation in which a regressive analysis points towards the “infinite” aspects of human experience. On Ricoeur’s reading of Freud’s theory of culture, the significance of religious meanings, history, and symbols is not a mere analogical formulation of an individual psychological model, but rather an explicitly social understanding of the psychological and language.

Ricoeur sees Freud as suggesting that culture, art, and religion are not purely symptomatic, reflecting merely a psychological condensation and compensation, but also signify simultaneously a kind of creative repetition.

The second form of interpretation is that of a phenomenology of spirit influenced by Hegel, whereby Ricoeur employs a dialectics of human experience that allows him to move towards the treatment of significant symbols in human history as representative of the movement of consciousness in history.

In deconstructing the necessity of the Hegelian absolute spirit as well as the realism of Freudian regressive analyses, Ricoeur suggests that consciousness follows the circular movement of symbols and thought, in which the hidden meanings embedded within symbolic expressions are revealed through interpretation.

Symbols allow the abstraction of experience, including the possibility of speculative and reflective thinking, which then transforms our experience of the world that conversely works upon symbols.

New symbols and structures of thought do not replace the old symbols, but rather, they sublate the previous depth and weight of these symbols such that they find expression within the new contemporaneous experience of the world.

For Ricoeur, this methodology justifies a theory of symbols from what Ricoeur sees as revolutions of consciousness that occur in the transformation of symbolic expressions. Revolutions of consciousness can be seen, for example, in the movement from defilement in the magical conception of the world, to an experience of sin and being “before God,” to the interiorization of fault within an experience of guilt (Ricoeur 1969, 1974a, 1974b ).

This is a point where it seems that Ricoeur also invokes a temporal theory of symbolism that intertwines his understanding of history, the present, and the future. This archaeology is exemplified within the regressive/ progressive synthesis within “Psychoanalysis and the Movement of Contemporary Culture” (1974).

In this synthesis, regression and progression do not reflect two diametrically opposed psychological or cultural processes; but rather, they are, in Ricoeur’s terms, “abstract terms deduced from a single concrete process whose two extreme limits designate (pure regression and pure progression)” (Ricoeur 1974b, 137).

Ricoeur continues to characterise this synthesis in question form: “Do not the most innovative forms an artist, writer, or thinker can generate not have the twofold power of concealing and revealing, of dissimulating the old, in the same way, dream symptoms or neuroses, and of revealing the most incomplete and unrealised possibilities as symbols of [humanity] of the future?” (Ricoeur 1974b, 138)

Ricoeur suggests that what is foundational to human existence, broadly speaking, is the interminable dialectic between the finite and the infinite aspects of our experience. Indeed, within an analysis of the economy of desire, these artefacts also represent a teleological desire for beyond.

Thus, the significance of symbols exists not merely in an analysis of the implicit motivations found within archaic forms of desire, but also in what Ricoeur deduces through a critique of the God of morality in the fallible foundations of our desire and effort to exist.

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